Rabbis kids: Extra stress at bar or bat mitzvah time

Getting up on the bimah and chanting in a foreign language is scary enough.

But imagine being the son or daughter of a rabbi and thus believing you must perform flawlessly on your bar or bat mitzvah. Now add to that the lachatz (pressure) of knowing the congregants expect you to read your Torah portion without a hitch.

The anxiety could turn any 12- or 13-year-old meshuggener — nuts!

Talia Shanks, daughter of Rabbi Judy Shanks of Lafayette's Temple Isaiah, asked her mother to abandon the pulpit when bat mitzvah time comes around next February.

Talia wants at least on this one day to forget she's the rabbi's daughter, and to be an ordinary girl whose adoring mom sits watching with the rest of the congregation.

"I do feel pressure that my mom's the rabbi. More is expected of me. I feel like I shouldn't sit in the back with my friends [during services] or do anything bad. I always feel that I'm supposed to try my hardest. I know other kids are told that too, but I think that rabbis' kids have to try even harder."

Rabbi Shanks said she won't mind sitting quietly throughout Talia's bat mitzvah.

"All year long a rabbi worries about other people's spiritual gratification. It will be nice to just be a mom and enjoy Talia on her day."

Shanks doesn't believe her congregation expects Talia to perform perfectly just because she's the rabbi's daughter.

"The only expectations on Talia are the ones she puts on herself," Shanks said. In fact, one of the nicest compliments Shanks said she ever received was from a temple member who said, "Isn't it great that Rabbi Shanks' kids run around just like everyone else's?"

Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Saratoga's Congregation Beth David feels the same way.

"My congregation really doesn't put pressure on my family," Pressman said. "I think what's changed is that the rabbinate has become more professionalized. The congregants know they've hired me, the rabbi, not my wife and kids."

Things didn't used to be that way, Pressman said, recalling that "there was a lot more pressure" when he was a child and his father was a rabbi. He remembers a congregant telling him on his bar mitzvah day, "You know, if you don't do well it will really embarrass your father."

Pressman's son Benjie, who celebrated his bar mitzvah last year, doesn't feel the kind of pressure his father did. Still, he knows expectations are higher for him than for his friends who have "civilian" parents.

"In Hebrew school, I feel like I have to behave better than my friends. It gets annoying sometimes," he said.

Benjie also said he is called to the Torah more often, encouraged to participate in the minyan — the prayer quorum — and do extra ritual tasks. Despite all the pressure, he really doesn't mind.

"I like being Jewish anyway, so all the extra stuff I'm asked to do is really OK."

Many rabbis' kids are so accustomed to the limelight that they've become desensitized to feeling nervous when on display. As Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco said, "Getting up on the bimah and performing is not something new to these kids. They've all been doing it for a long time."

That's how Miriam "Yummy" Langer said she felt about her bat mitzvah, celebrated this year. She said she wasn't nervous at all giving a speech about the Sabbath in front of the friends of her father, Rabbi Yosef Langer, at Chabad House in San Francisco.

Sometimes her father expects more of her because he is a rabbi, she said, "but I don't mind. Like if he tells me to go over and talk to some new girls my age in shul because I'm sort of like the hostess, I do. It makes me feel good."

Some rabbis' children say they don't stress themselves no matter who their parents are and what reputations might be at stake. Avinoam Lewis, son of Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Palo Alto's Congregation Kol Emeth, had his bar mitzvah Aug. 12.

"I'm sure [I made] some mistakes on my bar mitzvah," he said. "And I don't care. I don't put extra pressure on myself just because I'm the rabbi's son. I walk out of the sermon and play outside just like everyone else."