The hard bnai mitzvah work has a payoff: building a belief in oneself

When I began my work as a b’nai mitzvah teacher almost 25 years ago, I believed that it was all about the day. Everything I taught, every prayer or Torah verse the student studied, every reminder or nudge to study from the parent — it was all about the day.

But in these last few years, I’ve realized the folly of that belief. That’s not to say that the day isn’t important. It absolutely is, and it will be remembered forever.

But if we only see the months of preparation as a means to an end — and we don’t see all that those months have to offer our young people — then we are truly depriving them. It is during the journey to the bimah that we have the opportunity to help them become the adults we hope they will be.

It is an opportunity to teach or reinforce time-management, self-discipline, responsibility, self-assessment, goal-setting and the value of hard work. It is a time to teach the importance of communication — about what is difficult, challenging, frustrating, exciting.

It’s a time to teach the importance of asking for help (and how that can be a virtue rather than a sign of weakness). It’s a time to teach coping skills — how to deal with frustration, anxiety, stage fright. It’s a time to teach and reinforce problem-solving strategies — strategies that can be called upon during life’s journey.

And then, there are the most precious of the gifts: building self-confidence, self-empowerment and belief in oneself.

The young person realizes (with our reminders) that because of hard work and determination, because of blood, sweat and perhaps an occasional tear, because of his or her efforts, a goal has been set and accomplished.

With the support and guidance of teacher, clergy and parent, he or she will have achieved a goal which for many (albeit not all) appeared insurmountable at first. Along the way, it is our responsibility to remind the future Jewish adult to look back a week, a month or several months saying: “Look at how fluently you read that verse. Do you remember when you couldn’t get that first word and were ready to give up?” It is then that the Torah verses become a chain of prideful accomplishments.

It is our job to mine the journey of all it offers to our young people — to help them see its treasures — and in the end to remind them that the end came because there was a beginning filled with trepidation, anxiety, fear, awe, excitement, wonder. And because there was a middle filled perhaps with challenge and determination.

And afterward, let them remember that just as they set a goal and achieved it on the day they each became a Jewish adult in the eyes of their community, likewise they can meet every challenge they set for themselves.

This is the gift of learning to believe in oneself.

Two students exemplify this lesson.

Justin was an endearing and bright boy with emotional and learning issues when I met him. Justin had a great deal of anxiety about his capability despite coming into the process with a knowledge of a number of the prayers. The Torah reading in particular felt undoable to him. After learning one aliyah, Justin balked at my suggestion that he could learn more.

On the day of his bar mitzvah, he led the congregation in prayer in a powerful and enthusiastic voice, and he chanted from the Torah (two aliyot!). Afterward, as I mingled with his family and friends, one after another complimented me on my work and expressed their pleasant surprise at Justin’s accomplishments and his poise and comfort on the bimah.

It was clear that this boy, while surrounded by love, was also surrounded by doubt. He was being sold short which no doubt explained his own lack of belief in himself. I was pleased that Justin showed them of what he was made. I also hoped that what he achieved, leading up to and on that day, would serve to remind him and others of who Justin really is and of what he is capable.

Then there was Mara. She was told that she would likely not accomplish all that was expected. She was falling behind in her studies and making little progress. With some private lessons Mara was able to work past the blockage (and her anxiety) and push forward.

As the date got closer, she timidly asked me whether it would be OK to chant a little less Torah or lead a few less prayers. “Let’s just see what happens if you work hard,” I said. In the end Mara did everything that was expected. Her parents and I reminded her of how far she had come and how much she was able to accomplish. Her father said that through this she learned to believe in herself.

Recently, I asked a friend what he gained from his bar mitzvah experience 25 years ago. He stated without hesitation that one of the greatest lessons he walked away with is confidence.

“It was probably one of my first great accomplishments in life,” he said, “and for the first time I understood the true meaning of pride.” He credited the year of preparation.

Once the months of training and the day has ended, once the DJ has gone home, and once the gifts have been opened and the checks deposited, there remain the most important gifts.

If the preparation has been handled with care, if the tutor, rabbi, cantor and parents have done their jobs, this young adult will be moving onto the next leg of life’s journey with the most valuable gifts of all.

Jeff Bernhardt
is a Jewish educator, social worker and writer living in Los Angeles. He prepares b’nai mitzvah students at Temple Israel of Hollywood and privately.