Local synagogue joins effort to make bar mitzvah celebrations less flashy

Leaders hope to help return deeper meaning to bar and bat mitzvahs.

December 27, 2013

By: Monique Parsons

It was a few days after Noah Barkoff’s turned 13. He’d studied Hebrew for months, and dressed in a suit and tie, he stood at the front of his synagogue, ready to lead his congregation in prayer.

His voice echoed through the sanctuary at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe. He was one of about 100 kids to mark a bar or bat mitzvah here this year.

The temple’s a soaring, mid-century gem of white archways and wood, by the same architect who designed the World Trade Center. It’s easy to feel small in this big place.

But education director Roberta Goodman hopes kids like Noah won’t get lost here – or drift away when the party’s over.

“There’s actually often a fall-off after bar and bat mitzvah, because they feel like it’s an ending, when it’s really a beginning,” Goodman said.

Her synagogue is one of 13 around the nation that’s part of “B’nai Mitzvah Revolution.” That’s Reform Judaism’s latest effort to bring renewed meaning to the bar and bat mitzvah, a religious ritual that’s a rite of passage for adolescents.

Some in the Jewish community fear the bar mitzvah has become more of an excuse for a big party than a deeper commitment to the values of the faith. As just one example, they point to an elaborate party for a Dallas bar mitzvah boy that became a YouTube sensation in August. With his name in lights behind him, he appeared to descend from a chandelier and did a routine with a team of professional dancers in sparkly mini-dresses.

“It’s a problem,” said Rabbi Evan Moffic of Congregation Solel in Highland Park. “I’m not going to try to disguise it. It’s a big problem.”

Rabbi Moffic is watching the effort to see what works. He already reminds parents that the focus of the ritual should focus on building Jewish identity, self-esteem and a sense of community, but not everyone gets the message.

“We had one family who wanted to come in, and they had a bar mitzvah date two years away,” the rabbi explained.

“And we said, ‘Well, actually, we already have a bar mitzvah that day. We could have your ceremony the next weekend.’ And they said, ‘Oh, we’ve already booked our party venue so we can’t do it. We’ll have to look at another synagogue.’

“And I’m thinking to myself: ‘I understand. I’m not thrilled. But that’s the reality.’”

B’nai Mitzvah Revolution isn’t just about toning down the swanky parties. Roberta Goodman at North Shore Congregation Israel said something critical is at stake: the future of Jewish identity. Three out of four Jewish kids quit synagogue soon after their bar and bat mitzvahs. A recent Pew study reported that half of Reform Jews marry outside the faith, and about one in five say they aren’t religious at all.

“Our approach is that we are looking at changing a culture, and not creating a program,” Goodman said. “And in order to do that, you have to do that on many levels and in many ways over a long period of time.”

The temples in the national pilot project are trying different methods. Some might drop Hebrew; others may raise the age of the ceremony or make kids do more social service. At North Shore, the revolution is all about camp.

Upstairs in the religious education building, a dozen fourth-graders sat on a classroom floor.

These kids are years away from their bar and bat mitzvahs, but Goodman said it’s important to reach them young. Studies show that kids with Jewish friends are much more likely to stay affiliated with the religion, and by the time kids get to middle school, it’s too late.

With desks pushed aside and lights dimmed, the kids sat in a circle around a fake campfire plugged into a wall. They took turns adding to an unfolding story.

“Because where do you tell stories at camp? You tell them around the campfire,” Goodman said. “So when we are telling the story of the Jewish people, they do it around this campfire.”

So students – er, campers —  get matching T-shirts. Teachers are called “counselors.” The schedule is flexible to accommodate busy North Shore lives, and they do drama, art and music to keep it fun. It’s only two years old, but mother Amy Sclamberg of Highland Park thinks it’s already working. Her youngest son loves it. She sent her older son to traditional religious school, and after his bar mitzvah he didn’t come back.

“It’s different than it used to be,” Sclamberg said. “They reach out, they want to find out kids’ interest to make them interested. And no one seems to dread it, really.”

Downstairs after camp, her fourth-grade son Leo pulled out his guitar and started to sing the tune, “Hey, Soul Sister.” He’s 9, with blond hair and a charming grin. He brings his guitar every Sunday, and he plays in a band at the synagogue during the week.

Leo was thrilled when a high school student taught him some Jewish songs.

“He runs out the door to come here when he has his guitar,” said his mom, Amy. “For that reason alone, not to have to hear complaining about going to Sunday school and actually want to go. And if it’s because he has his guitar in his hand, fine. Great.” 

North Shore Congregation Israel isn’t stopping with the younger kids. The high school students are another key piece of the revolution. The cantor started a band to stop the exodus of teens.

About 15 of them — many who wouldn’t have considered attending more religious school — meet for an hour on Sunday morning to practice. They perform at services monthly.

Isaac Goldstein, a 13-year-old Highland Park eighth-grader with a Walter Payton jersey and Clark Kent glasses, plays lead on acoustic guitar and a host of other instruments. He had his bar mitzvah in June, but he’s back at synagogue three times a week.

“I’ve found a very good way for me to be involved and do what I love,” Isaac said. “It’s a very unique way to connect spiritually with my religion. I just love it so much.”

It’s unclear yet how much the difference the pilot project is making. And there are obstacles. Kids are busy, and religious education competes with soccer tournaments, music lessons, dance classes, tutors and schoolwork.

But at least one family was paying attention. Olivia Harris Barkoff of Glencoe said she purposely kept Noah’s party low-key: no grand entrances, no expensive party favors, no professional video montage in homage to her son. It was just dinner in the temple social hall, and little girls in sparkly shoes dancing to a Klezmer band with white-haired grandmas.

Barkoff wanted to keep the focus on family.

“It’s wonderful to be surrounded by your family. It feels like a big hug. All the time,” she said.

Her son Noah said he loved the family party, especially one game where he entwined arms with a friend.

“And then while the music’s going you spin around, and if you fall over you’re out, and if the music stops you have to find a new person,” he said. “It’s fun.”

Noah admitted he’d like a bit of a break. Learning all that Hebrew was hard work, and he wants to hang out with his school friends. But there’s a sign that the reform effort  may be working: He signed back up for religious school this year.