A Bar or Bat Mitzvah is something you become, not just something you celebrate. Here at Congregation Kol Ami, the journey to becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is uniquely filled with exploration, education and dialogue. It is a time when children garner the ear and one-on-one attention with the rabbi, find their own meaning in their Torah portion, give back to the community in a way that they find personally meaningful, and, over time, become fully comfortable standing upon our bimah, leading the congregation in worship.
We do not have double ceremonies. Each child has the honor of leading 90 percent of the Shabbat or Havdalah service. This gives each family the opportunity to make their simcha as individual as they like, whether through their choice of opening songs, unique family traditions or a song dedicated to their child by Cantorial Soloist Rebecca Schwartz.
While no Bar or Bat Mitzvah preparation is stress-free, at Kol Ami this is not a time filled with worry about keeping up with the Cohens. Celebrations range from a simple extended kiddush to an evening affair, with each family choosing what feels right and with the focus always on the accomplishments of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah child.
The Bar or Bat Mitzvah journey is woven into our Religious School and worship programs and our emphasis on Tikun Olam – healing the world through our commitment to social justice. The ceremony serves as a waypoint in a lifelong study of Judaism and its relevance to living a full life.
Weekly meetings with the rabbi are the centerpiece of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah program. A unique and powerful relationship emerges from this intensive interaction, one that helps tether the child to Judaism and the synagogue.
Most children start their formal preparation eight months prior to their Bar or Bat Mitzvah; however, this timeline can be adjusted based on a child’s individual needs. The process begins with the rabbi and the child reading through the Torah and Haftorah portions. The rabbi’s role is about “sharing, rather than guarding the Torah.” The rabbi helps each child fully understand his or her portion, and as a result of this dialogue, the child earns the right to select which verses to read or chant. Parents are welcome to sit in on the child’s weekly meetings with the rabbi to witness the forming connection and hear the thoughtful questions that spur each child to develop a unique understanding of the Torah and its relevance to modern life.
Over the course of their study together, the rabbi asks each child to answer 20 questions (one per week, ideally in partnership with his or her parents), which serve as touchpoints for exploring and deepening the child’s understanding of key concepts of the Shabbat liturgy and the Torah portion, and making explicit connections to daily life and how life can be lived. From this comes the child’s dvar Torah – a word about the Torah, better known as the child’s speech to be shared during the service.
At the same time, the rabbi is working with the child to review and master each of the prayers.
Each child, together with his or her parents, also chooses a tutor from our Religious School, to supplement the rabbi’s efforts. Children who decide to chant their Torah portion are encouraged to participate in our trope (Torah chanting) classes with Rebecca.
Several weeks before the big day, the child’s study moves to the sanctuary, where he or she uses one of our three sacred Torah scrolls, to become comfortable reading or chanting directly from the ancient text. These “dress rehearsals” afford the children ample opportunities to become comfortable with the entire service from the bimah, removing much of the stress from their big day.
Our Bar and Bat Mitzvah service is as unique as each child. Many families choose to present their child with a tallit (often custom-made by congregant Karol Appel in collaboration with the family) during the service, immediately before the Torah is read or chanted. As the Torah service commences, the child and his or her parents and grandparents are called to the ark, where the Torah is handed down L’dor v’dor – from generation to generation.
Kol Ami is deservedly very proud of the very high percentage of our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants who continue through to our Confirmation Academy (grades 7-10) — and then our LAMED program (grades 11-12). Why have we been so successful? It is the uniquely personal, intellectual and spiritual approach we take with each child.