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How my community is trying to fix a broken b’mitzvah system

Having grown up Orthodox, I only learned later in life that most young American Jews who have a b’mitzvah do so as the culmination of a multiyear educational program specifically designed to prepare for the ceremony.

After I became the spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley last year, one of the most frequent requests from families was that we relaunch our b’mitzvah program. But rather than default to what other communities had done in the past, I wanted to see how we could create a new program that reflected our approach to Jewish spirituality.

(B’mitzvah is a gender-neutral way to say bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah that some progressive Jewish communities have begun adopting.)

To better understand everyone’s needs, I put on my experience design hat. (I worked as a designer in tech before going to rabbinical school.) I began by interviewing more than 50 people about their b’mitzvah experience.

I wanted to hear from a wide range of people about what resonated with them about their b’mitzvah experiences — and what did not. I hoped to uncover the short- and long-term impacts of the experience on their spiritual practices and relationship to Judaism.

I was surprised — and saddened — to hear how many people had forgettable or negative experiences, often turning them off to Judaism for decades. People shared stories of being taught a Judaism that seemed outdated and irrelevant. Programs often came at the cost of sports or other extracurricular activities, further deepening a resentment that seemed to stick with them long beyond any material they learned.

The pain was almost framed as part of the rite of passage. As one respondent’s parents told them, “We had to do it, now you have to.”

How can something that families and communities pump so much time, energy and money into have outcomes so diametrically opposed to their intentions?

Clearly, the conventional approach to b’mitzvah journeys is broken. What might a renewed rite-of-passage look like — one that sets up emerging adults to live a meaningful Jewish life in our contemporary world on their own terms?

Very few people remember what they learned but rather how it made them feel about Judaism.

The stakes are high. Despite the best efforts of many Jewish organizations, most people I interviewed reported that their formal Jewish education ended with their b’mitzvah. This creates the difficult task of teaching material that is appropriate for an 11- or 12-year-old but can sustain them through their teens and young adulthood.

One key takeaway from these interviews is that very few people remember what they learned but rather how it made them feel about Judaism. So instead of focusing on what information needs to be conveyed, it seems that a new approach to b’mitzvah education would focus on teaching mindsets, which are much more durable.

When interviewing people about positive mindsets nurtured by their experiences, five themes arose most frequently. The most successful programs impart this vision of Judaism:

Empowering: Developmentally, teenagers are meant to rebel against their parents, which seems like the worst time to immerse them in a program that focuses on tradition, lineage and ancestors. How might we introduce emerging adults to a Judaism that is a toolkit they can use to create their own meaning and navigate the world, rather than a static rulebook handed down from their parents and grandparents?

Relevant: Eleven- and 12-year-olds don’t want to spend their nights and weekends learning a litany of backward-looking facts, texts and history lessons. How might we teach a Judaism that helps emerging adults design their own approaches to self-care, consumption, romantic relationships, sexuality, work, money and other core parts of an intentional life?

Dynamic: For many teenagers, the b’mitzvah marks the end of their formal Jewish education. This means their conception of God, spirituality and religion are frozen in a paradigm fit for a 13-year-old. No wonder so many people ditch Judaism as they get older. What if they are introduced to a Judaism that is meant to change as they age — and they have the tools to update it themselves?

Integrated: Most b’mitzvah programs occur in a silo from the rest of the community; the first time many people in the community meet them is at the ceremony itself. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that teenagers don’t feel connected to the community and have little interest in continuing to engage. What if community members, particularly elders, played an integral part of the b’mitzvah journey, serving as mentors, conveying their unique wisdom?

Nuanced: B’mitzvah programs are generally led by one educator, giving one perspective on how to be Jewish. If that perspective doesn’t resonate, it often leaves students with the feeling that Judaism isn’t right for them. How might they learn not just from one educator, but a full spectrum of perspectives on what it means to be Jewish, so they have multiple models to choose from as they age and grow?

These are the core questions that have shaped the design of the new b’mitzvah program we are launching this fall at Chochmat HaLev. Of course, educators across the world have spent countless hours trying to improve the b’mitzvah experience, so we’ve partnered with veteran educator Amanda Nube and are working with other longtime teachers for input and guidance. We’ve gained much wisdom from innovative programs across the country.

It’s early days, but I think we’re on to something. I’ve been energized by the excitement we’ve encountered as we share these five areas of focus with our incoming students and their parents. As one student told me, “I’m excited to learn about Judaism’s past so I can be part of its future.”

Zvika Krieger
Zvika Krieger

Zvika Krieger is the spiritual leader of Chochmat HaLev, a progressive community in Berkeley for embodied prayer, mystical wisdom and open-hearted connections. He was formerly the director of responsible innovation at Facebook/Meta.