Monday, July 18, 2011

Why many Israeli children do not have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony

This may sound strange to many of you, Jew and Gentile alike, who live near Jewish communities in other parts of the world.  Every Jewish kid you knew had a Bar (boy) or Bat (girl) mitzvah ceremony, right?  Everyone knows, it's the Jewish coming-of-age ritual.

Sometimes, the Torah reading and/or synagogue speech is overshadowed by a very lavish party.  With free flowing alcohol (for the adults only, of course), mountains of gourmet food, and a live band to play while the attendees dance the night away, some Jews have started to complain that the whole event is more "bar" than mitzvah.

Despite all of that, the Bar Mitzvah is still a treasured rite of passage in most Jewish families around the world. Why, then, do many Israeli children never have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony at all?

Simply stated, many parents don't have the time or requisite knowledge to teach their children to read from the Torah; they also lack the money needed to hire a tutor for them.

Here in Akko, a large part of the Jewish population are refugees (or children of refugees) from North African and Middle Eastern Muslim countries, as well as Jews who fled the Soviet Union (while it still existed).

In many cases, both parents must work full time jobs to provide a basic standard of living.  Once they've paid for rent, food, utilities, clothing, bus pass etc - there's just no money left for "luxuries" like a Jewish education.

Our Bar Mitzvah program has positively changed many lives already, here in Akko.  We offer free Bar Mitzvah tutoring to children in the community.  When they're ready to read from the Torah, we host the whole ceremony in our Beit Midrash (main study hall).

Some of our supporters have asked me, "Why do they need lessons?  Don't they already know how to read Hebrew - it's their first language!"

While it is easier for these kids to prepare for a Bar Mitzvah than non-Hebrew speaking children, it's important to realize that Modern Hebrew and Ancient Hebrew are not exactly the same language.

Once they become familiar with Ancient Hebrew, they must also learn the Torah portion, and how to chant it according to their family custom (both sefardim and ashkenazim have multiple sets of "notes" on the words, and we strive to provide each child with their family's custom of chanting).  They also need to understand the concept of the Torah in general, their Torah portion specifically, and how the ideas discussed in their portion are relevant to modern life.

Teacher (one of our students) and Akko youth seeking to understand the ancient text of the Torah

Our Bar Mitzvah program produces happier, more confident children, ready to enter their teenage years with a greater appreciation for and understanding of our unique heritage.

A young boy learns how to put on tefillin - a practice which also starts at the time of Bar Mitzvah

 The cost of providing one child in Akko with a series of Bar Mitzvah lessons, plus holding the ceremony on our campus, is $500.  (Ask any Jewish parent - that's a HUGE bargain!)

Would you consider sponsoring a Bar Mitzvah?



  1. Great projec - which you much success.

    Here in Modi'in the Hesder also has a Bar Mitzva project for kids in less observant families.

    The problem isn't so much money, but that many families have zero connection to any shul or Rabbi, so if the Hesder didn't launch this project and promote it through the public high schools, many of these families wouldn't have bothered.

  2. Michael,

    Thank you for the words of encouragement.

    In Modi'in, money may be less of a barrier.

    In Akko, many families earn just enough to get by, and can't / won't spend on any "extras" like Jewish education.

    The Israeli periphery as a whole remains less affulent than the center of the country.