Kibbutz bnai mitzvah reflect values of equality, cooperation

B'nai mitzvah at Israel's kibbutzim look and feel different than anywhere else.

All but 19 of Israel's 270 kibbutzim are non-religious; fewer than 56 have synagogues. For kibbutz kids, a bar or bat mitzvah is neither a religious nor a secular rite of passage; and in many kibbutzim, the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony does not include reading from the Torah.

In this segment of Israeli society, it is completion of one's army service that confers adult status.

B'nai mitzvah are nevertheless an integral part of kibbutz life because, like other Jewish traditions and holidays, they have been adapted to reflect kibbutz values: sharing, cooperation, economic and social equality and working for the common good.

Seventh-grade boys and girls celebrate a group b'nai mitzvah at the end of the school year, by which time most of the students have already turned 13. During the preceding year, they typically participate in a unique aspect of preparation for kibbutz b'nai mitzvah: the "13 projects."

Designed to increase self-awareness as well as responsibility to family, community and country, the projects involve individual, two-person and group activities that vary from kibbutz to kibbutz.

On Kibbutz Bet HaEmek, youths prepare a "roots" book about their family history. They also help needy persons. They make presents for parents and classmates — pillowcases, pencil cases and embroidered placemats are popular. And they prepare a personal life history exhibit for display on b'nai mitzvah day.

In pairs, the youngsters partake in Robinson Crusoe Day: hiking to the kibbutz fields, building a hut, cooking meals and camping overnight. They also pair off and volunteer for guard duty on another kibbutz.

As a group, the youths cook a Friday-night meal for the entire community. They also present a gift to the kibbutz — perhaps a woven wall-hanging for the dining room, a new hiking path, a courtyard garden or a sundial to be placed near the swimming pool. At a festive evening reception, the youths get onstage and perform.

On the first Friday in July, I attended Bet HaEmek's annual b'nai mitzvah, which is always hosted by the sixth-graders and their families with technical assistance from skilled kibbutzniks. This year Hillel, the orchard manager, could be spotted darting about on the dining-room roof, hooking up stereo speakers.

My friends' 12-year-old daughter Atara, who had just completed sixth grade, was directing guest traffic along with her friends in the parking lot while parents were photographing b'nai mitzvah families and serving drinks at the reception. At 4 p.m., seventh-graders and their families stood proudly behind a table covered with a white cotton cloth and laden with wine, orange juice, soda, pretzels, potato chips and cakes — poppyseed and chocolate — baked by Atara's class. As with all kibbutz celebrations, the entire community was invited; the atmosphere was festive, the dress informal.

At 6 p.m., the b'nai mitzvah youngsters, their families and close friends gathered around buffet tables set up on a lawn and then enjoyed a meal of sliced cold cuts, eggplant and coleslaw. At a brief ceremony, the head of the kibbutz presented each child with a Hebrew dictionary, after which the youngsters described the tasks they had completed during the year. Their families joined them onstage. They recited the prayer over the wine.

The children received bibles from their parents, and flowers and b'nai mitzvah certificates from their brothers and sisters. A brief slide show detailing each child's life followed the ceremony.

In the open-air theater at 8 p.m., the youths performed a takeoff on Israeli TV news and game shows. The play was enjoyed and critiqued with the same enthusiasm as a traditional Haftorah reading and speech.

In the first skit, masked terrorists armed with Uzis took over a newsroom demanding their rights, which included later curfews and less homework.

The sixth-graders served ice cream, which along with a stint of folk dancing rounded out the evening.

At 9 a.m. Saturday, about 100 well-wishers gathered with the seventh-graders and their families in Bet HaEmek's small synagogue. With parents and kibbutz leaders nearby, the children read a portion of the Torah text. Unlike b'nai mitzvah mornings in the United States, there was no rabbi present, no individual speeches or picture-taking. But other aspects of the morning, such as wine and challah served under the olive trees, looked familiar.

After the many wonderful moments of a kibbutz b'nai mitzvah, a seventh-grader declared that the best part of all had been "participating in the Jewish tradition."