Grow­ing up should be about help­ing oth­ers

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

HOW DO we make our girls’ bat­mitz­vahs mean­ing­ful? It is a ques­tion that our fam­ily and many of our friends are grap­pling with, as our daugh­ters turn 12. For the rit­ual el­e­ment, as mem­bers of an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue, our op­tions are lim­ited. Our daugh­ters can give a dvar To­rah from the pul­pit, prob­a­bly for the only time in their lives. This is of­ten mov­ing and a great im­prove­ment on the op­tions avail­able 20 years ago (noth­ing) but still feels like a pale im­i­ta­tion of the boys’ rit­ual.

Some Ortho­dox girls now leyn or get an aliyah at a Part­ner­ship Minyan or women’s ser­vice, while oth­ers at­tend mother-and-daugh­ter learn­ing ses­sions or Is­rael trips but this is still a mi­nor­ity.

As for the party, there is a lot of pres­sure to put on an ex­trav­a­gant “do”. For many fam­i­lies, sim­ply re­sist­ing this pres­sure and or­gan­is­ing a more mod­est event is mean­ing­ful in and of it­self.

Ninety-five years after the first pub­lic bat­mitz­vah cer­e­mony took place in New York, we’re still fig­ur­ing how to mark this Jewish com­ing-of-age.

I don’t sug­gest we aban­don any of the el­e­ments above. More rit­ual, more learn­ing, more fam­ily time and ap­pro­pri­ate cel­e­bra­tions are all good.

But there is one el­e­ment we should add to the mix, which will turn the bat­mitz­vah from a mi­nor, some­times su­per­fi­cial cel­e­bra­tion into a life-chang­ing event for our girls.

When I was bat­mitz­vah in Is­rael, some 30 years ago, our school ran a year-long bat­mitz­vah pro­gramme, where we learned about our place in our fam­ily and our com­mu­nity.

We spent months prepar­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into our fam­ily roots. And ev­ery sin­gle week, the en­tire class went to vol­un­teer at Yad Sarah, a na­tional char­ity pro­vid­ing health and so­cial ser- vices. My group’s job was to feed clean sheets that were used in care homes into an in­dus­trial iron­ing ma­chine. It sounds te­dious but the at­mos­phere was fun, and we felt very grown-up do­ing such re­spon­si­ble work.

The ex­pe­ri­ence was so pow­er­ful that sev­eral of my class­mates vol­un­teered again for Yad Sarah when they had to per­form their na­tional ser­vice at the age of 18. And it in­grained in all of us, from a very early age, the re­spon­si­bil­ity to be pub­lic­minded, to help oth­ers in need and to vol­un­teer for our com­mu­ni­ties.

Of course, times have changed in Is­rael, but some­thing of that tra­di­tion lives on.

My Is­raeli niece Maayan, who will be bat­mitz­vah in June, has de­cided to forego a party and presents, and in­stead has com­mit­ted to rais­ing $27,000 for three iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties in Nepal, which need clean wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion. Work­ing with Is­raAID, an Is­raeli char­ity that pro­vides dis­as­ter re­lief, she has just re­turned from a trip to Nepal to Maayan in Nepal Wouldn’t it be won­der­ful for a bat- or bar­mitz­vah year to be a year of giv­ing and char­ity. un­der­stand the com­mu­ni­ties she will be help­ing, and has come up with her own plan of fundrais­ing events, which she will run this year.

If this seems like a tall or­der for an 11-year-old, per­haps we should give our chil­dren more credit for what they can achieve. Too of­ten, in this age of “safe spa­ces” and he­li­copter par­ent­ing, we try to shield our chil­dren from the big wide world for as long as pos­si­ble and as a re­sult, we don’t chal­lenge or stretch them enough.

But be­com­ing bat­mitz­vah is os­ten­si­bly about tak­ing on adult re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and tak­ing on a more ac­tive role in Jewish com­mu­nity life. It is not too early to learn about poverty or peo­ple in need, not too early to vol­un­teer their time for the good of oth­ers and not too early for them to take on a big chal­lenge.

They can do it. They will be­come bet­ter peo­ple for it. And they will be­come more in­vested in our com­mu­nal or­gan­i­sa­tions and com­mu­nal life as a re­sult, too.

Many of our Jewish char­i­ties of­fer bnei mitzvah the op­por­tu­nity to vol­un­teer, and this is a grow­ing trend. Jewish Care, for ex­am­ple, is just launch­ing a stand-alone pro­gramme for girls and boys in years 7 and 8, where they can learn about the UK’s largest Jewish char­ity, vol­un­teer in its cen­tres and fundraise.

We should en­cour­age our young­sters to make vol­un­teer­ing a stan­dard, ba­sic part of their bat- or bar-mitzvah year.

For many kids, across the de­nom­i­na­tions, a syn­a­gogue cer­e­mony is a chore to get through rather than an in­spi­ra­tion. One can ar­gue that we must im­prove their ex­pe­ri­ence, but at the same time, wouldn’t it be won­der­ful -- and mean­ing­ful – to turn their bat­mitz­vah year into a year of giv­ing and char­ity.

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