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You Got Your Bar Mitzah Ceremony in My Shabbat Morning Service!

As I don’t need to tell any Jew reading this, the bane of attending Shabbat Shacharit (Sabbath morning) services for regular synagogue goers is often the size of the Bar Mitzvah crowd that stands–or sits–between you and your ability to fit in the door. The original point of B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies (the plural–including Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for boys and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for girls) was for the community to welcome its newest members who have finally reached the age (13 for boys, 12 for girls) at which observing the mitzvot (commandments) finally counts.

In theory, these events are supposed to be regular Saturday morning worship services where the child in question chants from the Hebrew bible in public for the first time. But at many synagogues today, irrespective of denomination, they’ve become enormous festivals of personality, where dozens–and sometimes hundreds–of unaffiliated or out-of-town guests crowd out regular synagogue members, with the vanity of the families in question celebrated by tables full of photos of the unfortunate child caught in the middle of the “my kid’s the greatest” maelstrom, self-serving speeches from parents and relatives, and a general air that this day–and this synagogue sanctuary–belong to one family, alone.

At my shul, Erev Shabbat (Friday night) services are our primary worship services, so on a regular Shabbos morning, at best maybe 20 worshippers show up. However, for the most part they’re regulars; you can count on most of them to always be there to hear Torah read on Saturday morning. But at summer’s end when B’nai Mitzvah season kicks in, Shabbos morning can be well over 100 strong, with most of those present there just for the kid’s special day–many having no intention of ever setting foot in our shul again until the next simcha (“happy occasion”), if ever.

Usually you can find a seat, a siddur (prayer book), and a parking space (we’re a liberal synagogue, after all.) But you don’t always find a warm welcome. The family’s guests are dressed up. If you’re a regular member, most likely you are not. After all, it’s your own weekly service. But anyone not wearing a suit or dress at the crack of Shabbos morning automatically gets the fish-eye from the unfamiliar hordes present as they walk in the door. Sometimes the service is truncated in funny places. Sometimes rubrics of the service are rewritten or replaced at the family’s request.

This is typical. Everywhere. Jewish blogger Ilana DeBare calls it the Bar Mitzvah/Industrial Complex. Overall, it can make it very hard to feel like you’re actually experiencing a worship service. Often, it just feels like a circus.

Last Saturday at my synagogue, it felt almost ominous. Hundreds of unfamiliar faces. No parking. No seats. No siddurim (prayerbooks.) No chumashim (Hebrew bibles.) Very obviously no thought given at all to the fact this was anything other than a closed event for one child and one family. I stayed in the sanctuary watching the self-worshipful pomp for five minutes.

Then I walked out, emailed a complaint to our cantor, tried not to cry on the bus ride back home, and davened (prayed) on my balcony. Why did I almost cry? Because, although it often seems that the balance of my movement thinks Torah is somehow on a continuum from optional to meaningless, this Reform Jew happens to think synagogue members–and, really all Jews–have an inalienable right to find a reliable welcome and have the ability to hear Torah read on Shabbos. Every Shabbos. Especially Shabbos. At shul. Their shul. Especially their shul.

I reached out to my Orthodox blogger friend, Chaviva Galatz (Kvetching Editor), and she noted in no uncertain terms that B’nai Mitzvah circuses are often the reason that some synagogues start to cleave themselves apart:

“…it’s not rare, and in some communities it’s more normative than anything, especially in the Orthodox world. In most communities, this is how break-away minyans tend to form. People get sick of the constant influx of strangers taking up their space and making the entire experience more like a circus than a visit to synagogue, so a breakaway is made in another room or at someone’s house or at a completely different shul.”

The emphasis in the quote is mine. My shul already has at least one break-away minyan (worship group)–that broke away to explore more traditional services, mind you. Larger synagogues may have several different minyans–some friendly to the main community, some not–meeting throughout the building or elsewhere on the Jewish Sabbath.

The common response from Jewish clergy about all this is that getting B’nai Mitzvah crowds in the door of a synagogue at least one time is worth the disruption to regular members and regular services. I think that’s a myopic perspective. It’s almost as if organized Judaism searches for ways to encourage Jews not to attend regular services or participate in synagogue life. We can’t keep our 20-somethings engaged until they get married or have children as it is. When we finally get those Jewish families back, why use them to make Jews who’ve been here all along feel unwelcome on Shabbat?

If nothing else, every synagogue with enormous and ongoing B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies should make sure that regular members always–always–feel welcome. That includes reserving parking (for liberal shuls), seats (and good ones, not marginal ones in the boondocks), prayerbooks, and Hebrew bibles for regular members.

That also includes making sure that anyone officially stationed at the synagogue door not be greeting people with phrases like, “Welcome to our Yaakov’s simcha!” Because the day is not about Yaakov’s simcha. It is about Hashem. A simple “Gut Shabbos” or “Shabbat Shalom” is sufficient.

Finally, really. Tables of photos of the B’nai Mitzvah kids growing up? Really? That belongs inside your reception hall, not outside the door of the sanctuary.

Of course, at least in my movement, I’m sure all of this may be spitting in the wind. (Not at my shul, mind you, which I know would be open to these suggestions, but not every shul is as open-minded as mine.) After all, we can talk about God, and Torah, and Shabbat, and worship in an academic sense in Reform Judaism. But God forbid we actually experience it for real.

I encourage you to Google everything I’ve written here, too–just have some time, a footstool, and a tub of popcorn at the ready when you do. This is a giant pain in the Sabbath that isn’t going away anytime soon.

Chaviva’s advice to me was to try and find an alternative Saturday morning shul and just avoid my own synagogue on large B’nai Mitzvah days. The fact that I found that to be good advice makes me sad. Not that it’s a bad thing to daven elsewhere. At least in Chicago, it’s a wide and wonderful Jewish community and I’ve been eager to check out some other nearby shuls (Reform and Conservative.)

It’s just sad to check out back-up synagogues because you never know when you’re going to feel like you’re not welcome at your own. And that’s not what I would call a Gut Shabbos.

Update (Friday, December 9, 2011): For the good of the earth’s continued revolution around the sun, readers are encouraged to browse the follow-up to this post, You Take the Good, You Take the Bad.

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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12 replies

  1. Almost two years later, and today, yet again, another Saturday morning zoo at my shul with parking stickers aimed at BM guests and standing room-only for our regular Saturday worshippers. While I am happy for the families involved, this is *not* the way to make the regulars who sustain our Shabbat morning worship services feel welcome. This is a way to say that Shabbat minyan is a guest at a b’nai mitzvah celebration. Religiously, it is the exact opposite, and this should never happen. I said as much two years ago, and my shul promised to do better.

    Keep trying. You’re not there yet. That’s a shame. And insulting as I daven on my balcony instead of in my own shul. And damaging, as I wonder yet again why I should bother to continue to be a paid member when things like this happen. Those BM guests will be back in their home cities by Monday. But my shul will still want my money.

  2. Great post; I truly agree. Some Orthodox congregations have put rules in place in regards to what is allowed to happen in the shul, and what must be regulated to after services in the social hall. It rains on some people’s parade…but I think its a good policy. While I don’t have kids yet, I am a very practical person. I can’t imagine spending much more on a bar/bat mitzvah than I would on a regular child birthday celebration. If anything, most of the cost and attention should be on the learning that comes BEFORE bnei mitzvah. Even then, if my child is not comfortable or willing to read for the Torah, I’m not going to make them suffer just to please the masses. What many people don’t realize is that you become bnei mitzvah automatically upon turning 12 or 13; no special ceremony is needed. IMHO, it’s been totally blown out of proportion in today’s Jewish community.

    P.S. – where on EARTH did you find a picture of a chocolate bar in hummus!

  3. I can see where Mike is coming from completely.

    B’nai Mitzvah is an important ceremony; it marks one’s path into adulthood and reaffirms their identity as being Jewish. That’s huge; that’s a life-long dedication to Judaism and most importantly, in serving Hashem. After all, that is the most important.

    However, I can see where Michael’s grievances lie. The turning of a sacred house of Hashem into a circus is not acceptable. While Shabbos is 52 times a year, and a B’nai Mitzvah is once, that doesn’t override the B’nai to take esteem above the Shabbos.

    At what point does one feel it necessary to greet a fellow Jew on Shabbos with information of a Simcha, as opposed to Shabbos Shalom? The whole point of a B’nai is to mark a commitment; overtaking Shabbos is probably not the best way to mark that commitment. In light of this, perhaps parents of the child should address the congregation with plans for the B’nai so that everybody knows what is going on. Include the congregation in the joy of the mitzvah! Why not? It’s a beauty to see such a thing, such an overwhelmingly powerful and beautiful thing. Through including the congregation in the mitzvah we also make the B’nai and the family feel welcome. It’s a winner all-around, is it not? The B’nai should never take higher esteem over the Shabbos, and if this is the case, something’s not very right here.

    The example Michael provided of pictures being used is wholly unnecessary; the Shul is a house of Hashem and thus needs to be recognised as such. Doing otherwise detracts from the nature of the ceremony itself. The shul is a place for Hashem; leave the photos of the kids at the reception. Otherwise, yes, it can feel like a huge circus as opposed to a Shabbos.

  4. At least they aren’t filming “Real Mitzvahs of Chicago” there yet, but give it time. I may have just given an idea to A&E or Bravo.

    1. Seriously. Judging from my Facebook and the people who have posted there, though, I think it’s pretty obvious that Jews-by-Birth can be very uncomfortable when the opinions of Jews-by-Choice don’t match up with theirs. Frankly, it’s alarming to feel that at my own synagogue. They were thrilled when I wrote about the wonderful aspects of my Jewish journey. Well, this is part of my experience, too. And they don’t get to have me talk about the one without talking about the other.

  5. This is going to sound crazy but I’ve actually never attended a bar or bat mitzvah. I have a hard time imaging all that hoopla at my shul since I’ve never actually seen it.

  6. An interesting and rather immediate response to this entry was posted on my Facebook page today from the former office manager of my synagogue, who took this post rather personally. While it was not personally intended, I stand behind my opinion here, which is not an uncommon opinion on this issue by any means. I invite you to read that response on my Facebook page.

    The gist of the response is that Shabbat services are not “my” (or by extension anyone else’s) Shabbat Shacharit services and that anyone who doesn’t want to “join in on the simcha” should find another way to worship (on) Shabbat. It’s a great example exactly of what I wrote about here: some in the synagogue community firmly believe that the only people that matter on Saturday morning are the b’nai mitzvah children and families.

    As far as I’m concerned, that’s a gross perversion of the point of Shabbat services, much less Shabbat.

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