Ah, the thrill and abandon of early adolescence. You laugh and gossip with your friends; smack gum and blow bubbles; gesture in sign language to your best buddy across a crowded room. And if you’re especially lucky, the rabbi won’t shoot you a dirty look when your behavior interferes with the bar mitzvah boy’s Torah portion.
Our sages taught that a parent is responsible for the actions of a child until that child reaches the age of 13 years and a day. At that point he’s ready to assume full responsibility for observing the commandments and for all his deeds. Perhaps our sages should have specified that all deeds include downing the remains of alcoholic beverages, stuffing toilets with rolls of paper, running wild in hotel parking lots, having elevator races, destroying someone else’s furniture and (gasp) sexually precocious acts in bathrooms with other newly pubescent Jewish “adults.”
These days, with my son on the b’nai mitzvah circuit, I’ve been privy to many horrific tales of disrespectful and out-of-control behavior at these meaningful celebrations. While some of the more extreme stories may be suburban legend, there’s no doubt that disorderly conduct is a recurring problem. And these troubled waters run deeper than the offending parties could ever imagine; the potential ripples far surpass that puddle surrounding the ice sculpture of the bat mitzvah girl doing a pirouette.
This unruly behavior is hurtful, if not heartbreaking, to the families who have invested many months — not to mention lots of money — anticipating and preparing for this all-important day.
These deeds negatively impact the synagogue’s visitors and regular congregants, as well as rabbis forced to add policing to their list of Shabbat morning duties.
Still, the most unsettling ripples that stem from these young guests’ thoughtless actions may be those that travel beyond the scope of our personal celebrations. They’re the ripples felt by non-Jewish friends who witness Jewish children’s audacious misbehavior at such supposedly sacred events. Hotel management and party planners, too, may move away from the bar mitzvah “industry” for fear of property damage and risk of reputation.
Finally, there is that most ominous-looking wave only beginning to swell, which carries in its tide Judaically jaded kids who have come to believe that their own traditions and prayer are unworthy of their reverence and respect.
The overwhelming nature of the task — busting bad behavior at b’nai mitzvah — feels analogous to that of disinfecting the mountain of muddy laundry my son brought home from overnight camp last summer. “Start with the underwear and move out from there,” insisted a domestically superior friend of mine. And right she was, for when confronted with a mess of such magnitude as heaps of filthy camp frocks — or an epidemic of poor bar mitzvah behavior — the bare basics, no matter how skimpy and thonglike, is the place to begin.
Myrna Rubel heeds this truth. The Atlanta middle school director works to foster basic b’nai mitzvah etiquette among her 12- and 13-year-old charges. She facilitates an ongoing dialogue about proper synagogue behavior, with such pointers as keeping your siddur open during services — whether or not you believe you know its content as well as your locker combination.
Unfortunately, after many years of educating the hormonally challenged, Rubel also knows another truth: Clean underwear doesn’t necessarily guarantee presentable clothing. In the days of the sages, 13-and- one-day may have been old enough to take full responsibility for observing the commandments, but in the days of Snoop Dog and Puff Daddy, 13-and-one-dayers tend to fall short on personal responsibility.
Consequently, Rubel offers the following recommendations to parents of those bound for b’nai mitzvoh:
At your own child’s bar or bat mitzvah, she says:
• Arrange for ushers to be present at services and prepared to manage any behavioral problems.
• Don’t be afraid to have a pre-party powwow with your young guests regarding your expectations and the consequences of misconduct.
• Feel comfortable calling parents of children who misbehave. (Wouldn’t you want to know?)
• Hire a party planner to keep an eye out for questionable activity.
• Plan a separate children’s party; kids will be less likely to act out due to boredom or be tempted by alcohol.
At the b’nai mitzvah:
• Don’t assume that your child’s behavior is the responsibility of day school principals, religious school directors, rabbis or other parents. It’s yours.
• Accompany your child to services and model appropriate behavior.
• Don’t allow kids to dress improperly or promiscuously.
• Consistently, if not relentlessly, review the basics of proper behavior with your children.
• If you know your kid tends to bore easily and subsequently seek out other means of having “fun,” pick him or her up early from the party.
• Organize a meeting with parents of other children in the same grade. Brainstorm ideas and join forces.
An invitation to a bar or bat mitzvah isn’t a glitter-clad proclamation that your kid will be out of your hair for the majority of Saturday. On the contrary, it is a summons to us to do our jobs as parents, role models and true Jewish adults.
Sharon Estroff, an educator and author of a nationally syndicated Jewish parenting column, lives in Atlanta with her husband and four children.