CHICAGO — Jennifer Loeb's favorite part of her bat mitzvah last spring was chanting from the Torah. As she tells how she scrolled the parchment to her Torah portion (Behar in Leviticus) for the first time and laid her eyes on the ancient Hebrew words, her voice reveals her excitement.
"It just felt really good when I got to read out of it," says Loeb, who was 12 at the time. "The first time I read was exciting. My mom was happy and I was happy."
Becoming a bat mitzvah, she adds, is "knowing what you are in the religion."
Rabbis pray for dream students like Jennifer who grasp the concept that becoming a bar/bat mitzvah (son/daughter of the commandment) involves so much more than a few hours chanting in front of relatives, culminating with a big party. It's becoming an adult in the eyes of Judaism — that is, learning to make decisions and take responsibility for one's actions, and not always depending on one's parents for the answers.
For Rabbi Dennis Katz, this rite of passage is just the beginning of one's Jewish journey. "It's a wonderful starting point to familiarize yourself with Judaism as an adult," says Katz, spiritual leader of Congregation Shaare Tikvah in Chicago. "Rather than seeing it as an ending point for one's education as a Jewish person, it's the point where you're really able to start to be thoughtful as an individual."
Rabbi Shalom Podwol, of Park Forest's Congregation Am Echad, explains that the bar or bat mitzvah is "an inducement for children to get a Jewish education," because most kids must complete many years of Hebrew school or Jewish day school long before even thinking about their big day.
Lately, synagogues are becoming more effective at teaching kids about the real essence of this lifecycle event. Back when Jennifer's father celebrated his bar mitzvah, the preparation process was more mechanical and rote, according to Sherri Loeb, Jennifer's mother. The sacred meaning behind this rite of passage wasn't emphasized nearly as much as it is today.
"They were given the prayers and taught to memorize them," says Sherri, who recently became a bat mitzvah herself, as an adult. "It was more, 'Let's learn what we need to learn for this day,' and it was never taught as something that can be fun. If it's fun, kids will learn even more."
Today, Jewish kids and their families are learning that preparing for this lifecycle event is less about going through the motions and more about spirituality, according to Rabbi Stuart Altshuler. "Most of the kids we have are really serious about their bar and bat mitzvahs. They are trying to find meaning rather than just going through a perfunctory process," says Altshuler, spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Congregation in Wilmette. Religion today "is not just an ethnic attachment to the community, but a serious undertaking."
An innovative program called B'Mitzvotav (by God's commandment) demonstrates this important undertaking to students at Temple Chai in Long Grove.
Implemented three years ago, the program works as a tool to teach children that b'nai mitzvah are about more than just one day up on the bimah.
The program allows children preparing for their special day to keep up with other areas of Judaism simultaneously — study, worship and mitzvot — during the course of their pre-bar-bat mitzvah tutorial year. Each child completes electives and requirements in each of the categories. For example, a student may read a Jewish-themed book and write up a summary (study), build a sukkah (worship), and volunteer at a nursing home (mitzvot).
"[The students] realize that these things are part of Judaism too, things that they probably already do, but don't necessarily know are Jewish things until you spell it out for them,'' says Marcia Cohen, director of the b'nai mitzvah tutoring program at Temple Chai.
Although voluntary, participation in B'Mitzvotav seems contagious — around 90 percent of students at Temple Chai enroll in the program. Each pupil is presented with a certificate at his or her ceremony, upon completion of the course.
In order to sustain the religion, young Jews must keep up with their Jewish involvement after their 13th birthdays, according to Altshuler. The way to maintain participation in the Jewish community, he says, is to provide programming — classes, activities and youth groups — that appeals to teens who are too young to join the adult congregation, but too old for children's activities.