Group ceremony a meaningful alternative to traditional b’nai mitzvah

At my daughter’s bat mitzvah in May, many people spread out to form a large circle and carefully hold a completely unrolled Torah scroll.

With the scroll spread out so that its entire contents were visible, my daughter found the spot on the parchment where the Torah portion corresponding to her Hebrew birthday was located. So did eight other 12- and 13-year-olds.

Standing with their parents at their Torah portions (indicated in advance with Post-It notes) and going in order from Genesis to Deuteronomy, each child recited one line from his or her portion.

Julie Wiener and daughter at her Brit Atid

It was a powerful moment — one that while nontraditional also felt respectful and authentic.

Having the children stand by their portion reinforced the idea that each child has a place in the Jewish story. It empowered all the assembled family and friends to touch the Torah and feel a sense of ownership. And it literally offered a new and different way of looking at the Torah.

Perhaps most important, however, was that this was a group ceremony, not an individual one. And in contrast to the lavish parties that follow many contemporary b’nai mitzvah ceremonies, it was followed by a shared party: a simple, tasteful (and tasty) brunch reception.

Called a Brit Atid (Hebrew for covenant of/with the future) the ceremony was a culmination of my daughter’s participation in the Jewish Journey Project (JJP), an alternative Jewish education program that describes itself as “experiential Jewish education for the modern New York City kid.”

Launched out of the JCC in Manhattan, JJP enables kids to choose their classes according to their interests and scheduling needs. Students can enroll through the JCC or through one of five partnering synagogues. The synagogue kids have a traditional bar or bat mitzvah at their congregation, while the JCC kids can plan a private ceremony or participate in the Brit Atid.

The Brit Atid ceremony was preceded by a year of monthly parents-and-kids Torah study sessions, along with monthly one-on-one sessions with a teacher. Each child came up with a creative project to interpret and present the Torah portion.

Although my daughter and I worried the Brit Atid would feel like a dumbed-down bat mitzvah, this approach felt more relevant for us than a long performance in a language most of our friends and family do not understand. Since we are not regular Shabbat service-goers, learning to chant trope is not a skill my daughter is going to use (or at least not in the near future) and it’s not really what being Jewish is about to us.

Having a group ceremony had its disadvantages: We were allowed to invite only 30 guests, the ceremony was not close to my daughter’s birthday, and we didn’t get to customize the ceremony or party. However, these were offset by the many advantages.

On the practical side, I’m not much of a party planner, and my husband and I did not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours planning a big event. Early on, even before we knew about the Brit Atid option, we’d decided, with my daughter that we’d rather put money toward a family trip to Israel than toward a bat mitzvah party.

More importantly, I am not a big fan of the individualism of many b’nai mitzvah celebrations — the professionally produced invitation videos, the myriad speeches praising the child, the “theme” and the photo montage. On the other hand, a group ceremony conveys a message to the newly minted Jewish adult and to guests that Judaism is a collective, participatory endeavor.

Shortly before the Brit Atid, we attended the more traditional bar mitzvah of a close friend, and both my daughter and I had a few pangs of wondering if she, too, should have gne the traditional route. On the plus side, the second-guessing got her competitive juices flowing and motivated her to improve her speech. And in the end, she said she was very happy with how it went — and looked forward to our planned summer trip to Israel.

Julie Wiener is the managing editor of MyJewish-Learning.com.