In a From the Bimah column in the Canadian Jewish News, Rabbi Yael Splansky of Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple expressed concern over the state of bar and bat mitzvah celebrations today (“Worrisome bar and bat mitzvah trends,” March 27).
Of less concern to Rabbi Splansky in that piece is the lavishness all too often seen at many bar and bat mitzvah celebrations – a point that has been debated in this column and on the website of the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin. Rather, her point was to chip away at various additional emerging trends. Among these are DIY (do-it-yourself) and destination bar and bat mitzvah events.
Like most pulpit rabbis, she has an inherent interest in promoting strong synagogue attachment. Synagogues depend on their members seeing their home bimah as the place to have a bar mitzvah. Renting a separate space in town, or going abroad – whether to Israel or elsewhere – naturally undermines what used to be the unquestioned place of the synagogue in community life.
I admit that I understand her sentiment both from what must be her personal standpoint (what pulpit rabbi wants to see the erosion of synagogue life?) and from a communal perspective (synagogues have historically formed the bedrock of Diaspora Jewish communities).
Nevertheless, her points are worth scrutinizing on two levels. One is the financial pressures all too prevalent in today’s practice of Jewish life. The second is the chicken-and-egg dynamic of values and standards at play here.
Even without lavish food and entertainment choices, there is no doubt that having a large, local celebration – the kind that accommodates one’s ordinary local network of family, friends, congregants and community contacts, can be very costly. Going away – where the guest list will automatically be much smaller – can seem a cost-effective and meaningful way of marking the occasion. Rabbi Splansky acknowledges that it might feel meaningful. But she ignores the financial factor in her piece.
Similarly, and depending on one’s synagogue denomination, if one does not normally keep strictly kosher, DIY affairs can help bypass the additional costs for catering under kosher supervision.
The second point involves the circular reasoning inherent in this debate more generally. I have heard rabbis talk about “standards.” The question goes like this: what are the standards we want our community members to uphold, when it comes to the relationship between simchas and synagogue and educational life?
According to this logic, some shuls insist that bar and bat mitzvah celebrations happen only on Shabbat morning, so as to avoid having these events become private affairs. Google “Saturday night bar mitzvah” and you’ll see that this is a point Rabbi Jeffrey Wolfson Goldwasser makes at about.com where he is the Reform movement representative for the website’s Ask the Rabbi column. The logic of holding a Saturday night event, of course, is that one saves several thousand dollars from not hosting both a luncheon and a night party – the typical duo of celebration that has become the modern bar and bat mitzvah weekend.
Fair enough. Rabbis and other synagogue officials can insist that bar and bat mitzvahs remain a symbol of communal engagement, and that a certain number of years and weekly hours of Hebrew school study have been obtained by the bar or bat mitzvah celebrant (as some Ottawa synagogues currently do), and that only certain times of day are appropriate for marking this milestone in a Jewish young person’s life.
But the problem remaining is this: standards are only meaningful if the values they are seeking to protect are actually held by the audience in question. Standards in higher education, for example, are maintained because the employment marketplace rewards the achievement of official university and college accreditation. Is Jewish life akin to the professional marketplace? My fear is that Jewish families may come to view these synagogues’ so-called standards as initiation rites to clubs they don’t ultimately care enough to want to join. And if that, sadly, should become the case, then the call for standards will become little more than whistles in the wind.