“Thank You Shabbat Two”
November 24, 2017/7 Kislev 5778
The Top Ten Reasons that You Should be Proud and I am Grateful for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at Temple Emanuel
Number 10 – You should be proud and I am grateful for the good taste that our b’nei mitzvah families exhibit in celebrating their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs. Modern Jewish culture abounds with tales of extravagant b’nei mitzvah celebrations, occasions that compel rabbis to lament that there is “too much bar and not enough mitzvah.” A business magnate flew all 200 guests at his son’s bar mitzvah to the French Riviera for three days of festivities highlighted by performances by Beyoncé and Andrea Bocelli. …Small potatoes compared with the bar mitzvah invitation instructing the invited guests to bring a suitcase packed with warm weather clothing and outdoor gear to the service. After the service, buses transported all the guests to the airport where a chartered jet airliner took everyone to Africa for a safari. Even if Temple Emanuel members could afford it, they have too much good taste and good sense to do it.
You should also be proud and I am grateful that the same applies to our b’nei mitzvah kids themselves. Snoop Dogg, one of the originators of Gangsta-Rap, once performed at a bar mitzvah celebration. While he was cleaning up his lyrics to make them age-appropriate for this most atypical audience in his career, all the 12- and 13-year-olds were singing the original profane lyrics. Eventually Snoop just handed the kids the microphone and let them go. Imagine: Snoop was shocked! You should be proud and I am grateful that this could never happen at Temple Emanuel.
Number Nine – You should be proud and I am grateful that Temple Emanuel has asked more of our b’nei mitzvah kids than any other Reform congregation. I know this from my own experience when I’ve attended Shabbat services elsewhere. I know this from discussions with colleagues. And I know this from Temple members who have attended b’nei mitzvah services at other congregations.
Temple Emanuel kids basically lead the entire heart of the service, from the Bar’chu to the Silent Prayer ending the Amidah. Temple kids do the Maftir; if they are very ambitious, we add verses to their Torah passage. Temple kids do the entire Haftarah, whether it’s the shortest at eighteen lines or the longest at ninety-three lines. Of course in cases of special needs and I.E.P.s, we adjust our expectations accordingly. Temple kids deliver a D’var Torah that demonstrates their understanding of the Torah portion or the Haftarah. They grasp the central ideal, and then they teach it to the congregation. They talk about their Mitzvah Project, a task they invariably take seriously and meaningfully. During my first decade here in the 1980s, kids twinned with their peers in the Soviet Union, becoming b’nei mitzvah proxies for Jewish kids suffering religious oppression under Communism. More recently, many of our kids twin in memory of peers who perished in the Holocaust.
Which leads to Reason Number Eight that you should be proud and I am grateful for our teachers and b’nei mitzvah tutors. While our teachers are too numerous over the decades to mention all by name, our tutors have basically and amazingly numbered one for the past forty years and counting: Jacob Naveh. Jacob is the one person who has prepared more b’nei mitzvah kids at Temple than I have; also more multi-generation b’nei mitzvah – parents and then children – than I have too. In recent years, Adele Sufrin has also served as b’nei mitzvah tutor, maintaining the high standards set by Mr. Naveh.
All this in turn leads to Reason Number Seven why you should be proud and I am grateful. All of our kids are well prepared the day they become bar or bat mitzvah. Alice and I were once seated at a service next to the rebbetzin of the congregation. As the bat mitzvah girl stumbled her way through the service, the rebbetzin turned to us and said, “She’s not very well prepared.” I cannot imagine someone making such a comment here. Most important, our kids all devote the time to practicing and preparing. Some kids plug away slowly and steadily, and some kids wait until the last moment when their adrenalin kicks in (as I did at age 13), but all of our kids prepare. How well our kids may do at the service is another matter. Their actual performance may be a function of their ease with a foreign language. It may also be a function of their poise being in the spotlight. The first is relatively rare; the second is much rarer still.
Which leads to Reasons Number Six and Five….
Reason Number Six why all of you should be proud and I am grateful…. All of our kids with few exceptions, meaning a handful among upwards of a thousand kids here at Temple, try to do their very best on the morning they become a bar or bat mitzvah. In rehearsals, I always impress upon the kids that I do not expect them to be perfect, I only expect them to try to do their best. And all of them, almost without fail, do indeed try to do their best … and then they do their best!
Thus, Reason Number Five that you should be proud, and frankly, I am proud of our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel. I am proud of the little pep talk that I perfected over the years to conclude each rehearsal. I tell the kids the different ways to handle mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable; they are not catastrophic. I then address the emotional reality that they are going to be nervous. I tell them, “Don’t be nervous about being nervous.” I reassure them that being nervous is natural, normal, healthy and helpful. Most of all, being nervous means that you care about it. Being nervous is your body’s way of telling you that you want to do well. I then talk about all the famous performers who get nervous every time they perform; “stage fright” is what they call it. I then tell the kids that I will be nervous too, nervous precisely because I want to do well for them and for their family, and for Temple Emanuel. I always conclude my pep talk with a little sermon about how your bar or bat mitzvah prepares you to do your best when life challenges you and makes you nervous.
And then on the morning of their bar or bat mitzvah, after I introduce them and invite them to the pulpit to lead the service, Reason Number Four then comes. Did you ever notice that as the bar or bat mitzvah walks by me to the pulpit, I whisper in their ear? Do you know what I always say? “Have fun!” Suddenly all those nervous feelings are reframed in a way that a 13-year-old can embrace. When nervousness becomes excitement the whole experience becomes fun. Thus, our kids are ready to make all of you proud and grateful and make me proud and grateful for our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel.
Reason Number Three… After every bar and bat mitzvah, guests always walk up to me – family members a friends, Jews and Gentiles – and tell me how much they loved the service. Here’s what I typically here. “If I lived in this community, I’d join this congregation.” “I wish I could come here every Shabbat.” “I’ve never attended a synagogue service before; this was wonderful.” After our last bar mitzvah here at the beginning of November, a man walked up to me and said, “I’m a synagogue goer; I’ve been to services all over; this was the best Shabbat service I’ve ever attended.” So too the parents relate to me the countless compliments they receive. Of course, all of us should be proud and grateful for our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel.
But Reason Number Two truly delights me, and I hope you too. What we have accomplished together – the kids and I, Dr. Cohen over the years, and recently Rabbi Locketz, Cantor Rena or Janet Mostow, musical accompanists, our tutors and our teachers – keeps Judaism alive, bright and beautiful, gives everyone a glimpse of God’s presence in our lives and a taste of the sublime sweetness of Shabbat.
Thus, Reason Number One why we should all be proud and grateful for our b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel. At the heart of all this is the genius, the heart and the soul of Judaism. Our tradition takes our young people at this most awkward age and asks them to assume all these enormous responsibilities, and invariably they succeed! Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah becomes the most powerful transformative moment in a young person’s life.
The question that our generation must ask is what can we do to make it last for the rest of their lives?
In a few months, I will leave Temple Emanuel with thirty-eight years of memories of a thousand b’nei mitzvah kids and their families and our wonderful Shabbat mornings together. Over the many years, people have told me that they marvel at how I have been so spot-on in addressing each kid individually as they become bar or bat mitzvah. It’s been easy. They are all special, each in his or her own remarkable way. I have loved working with Temple Emanuel’s kids and officiating at this major Jewish milestone in their lives and in their family’s lives. That I have been spot-on in addressing every kid reflects how much I’ve loved them.