A plan to fight synagogue flight: the chai mitzvah

“Organized Judaism is in trouble.” I’ve been hearing that refrain for years now, from rabbis and Jewish leaders in speeches, sermons, op-eds and conferences. The litany of complaints is familiar: Synagogue membership is down; the new generation doesn’t like organized religion; people want something new; and so on.

There is, however, one culprit that seems to always rise to the top: Too many families abandon synagogue life after the bar/bat mitzvahs of their children.

There’s surely a good reason for this, aside from the obvious one — that families are trying to save on membership dues.

For one thing, I think we’ve made too big a deal of the bar/bat mitzvah “accomplishment” in the lives of our young teens. If anything, that’s the age when they’re more likely to graduate to their wild and rebellious years than to their “responsible Jewish years.”

Also, the whole notion of graduating implies moving on to a new place — whether it’s graduating to a new school, a new job, a new city, married life, etc.

Sure, we always try to impress on our kids that they’re graduating into a more serious and responsible Jewish life — and that should mean continuing to be part of synagogue life — but who are we kidding?

The truth is, as long as families see the bar/bat mitzvah lifecycle event as a major and finite accomplishment, they will feel encouraged to “move on,” no matter how rabbis couch it, especially if the family is not already committed to synagogue life.

Yes, it certainly helps to improve the general synagogue experience, but to counter the bar/bat mitzvah exodus syndrome, we need something more direct. We need to create a new and more meaningful lifecycle event that would encourage families to stick around for several more years.

Let’s start with reality.

Kids don’t become “men” or “women” at ages 12 or 13. That tender age is the beginning of arguably the most vulnerable years of kids’ lives — when they can experience the most damage, or the most growth.

In other words, from the early teen years until they’re about 18 is when they need the most help from a supportive synagogue community — the years when they really need to develop the tools to enter adulthood.

So, here’s my idea for a new lifecycle event: the chai mitzvah.

At 12 or 13, you have your bar/bat mitzvah; at 18, you have your chai mitzvah.

The bar/bat mitzvah would prepare you for the more important chai mitzvah, when you mature into adulthood and are ready to go out into the world.

This would put the bar/bat mitzvah lifecycle in a more realistic place. There would be less pressure on our young teens; the focus would be on preparing them for the next five crucial years of their lives.

Synagogues would then have an opportunity to hit it out of the park with programming for 13- to 18-year-olds: leadership training, learning life skills, dealing with money issues, taking care of your health, dealing with the opposite sex, getting involved with charities, helping out with synagogue projects, getting summer jobs, getting into college, strengthening Jewish learning and connection to Israel, loving Shabbat and so on.

These years are rich with growth and possibility. If the programming is relevant and compelling, there’s no reason why kids and families can’t continue to participate actively in synagogue life.

Think of how much more relevant the classic bar/bat mitzvah clichés of “growth, maturity and transition” would be during a chai mitzvah ceremony.

OK, there is one problem. It’s not as if we need another opportunity to fork out a bundle on a wild party. But who says we need one? Why not create a meaningful chai mitzvah ceremony in synagogue that would include all the important people in the kid’s life over the previous five years?

The key point is this: If we offer Jewish families a compelling and meaningful new lifecycle event after the bar/bat mitzvah, they’ll be a lot more likely to remain active in their synagogue communities.

And more important, we will help our kids during some of the more difficult years of their lives.

Since this is the time of year when we are most concerned with renewal, I can’t think of a better way to renew our community than through our teenage kids and our synagogues.

Shanah tovah — and mazel tov.


David Suissa is president of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.