Cantor Aaron Shifman | B’nai Jeshurun Congregation | Pepper Pike
What is the most important thing to get right?
The child should be very well-prepared with mastery over all the materials being chanted. We strive to make it more meaningful for them with an understanding of their Torah and haftorah portion. Also, in conjunction with the mitzvah, children are given the opportunity to make some of their own ritual materials like their tallitot. They can take a personal interest in doing this. They are engaged in ways that allow them to be invested in the process. This helps shape them as individuals.
What can the ceremony say about a child?
The ceremony shows they are taking responsibility as a young adult to commit to Judaism and having a positive impact in our community. Hopefully, they will inspire others to do the same. One of the things we do, as part of a mitzvah, is allow children to choose their own mitzvah project. They choose something that is near and dear to their families. Going to that question, the very virtue of getting them to think outside of themselves is (important). Children at this age, everything has been tailored for them by their parents. When you start to have a child think about what they want as a project, you’re taking them out of their core structure and having them think about others.
What is often overlooked?
Sometimes too much energy and effort is focused on planning the party or celebration and not enough in terms of the ceremony and commitment to Judaism. Families should be focused in terms of really giving children the ability to propel themselves in Judaism for years to come. The point is, the mitzvah can be used not just as a way to burden children with responsibilities but something they really want to invest in.
What trends are you seeing?
We have seen a trend toward having the mitzvah ceremony held in Israel. Some families have one ceremony in Israel, and within the year, another here at B’nai Jeshurun for state-side guests. This is for a couple reasons. We believe God’s presence is everywhere in the world, but for Jews, Israel is the holiest place in the world. While you can have many anniversaries of your mitzvah, you only have one opportunity to have one. This gives it much more significance than doing it anywhere else in the Jewish Diaspora. That doesn’t mean it isn’t special and meaningful anywhere else. But since it is such a highlight and many loved ones won’t be willing to make that trip, we do see it common to have dual celebrations.
When should parents start planning?
We give out dates three years in advance and typically begin the student’s training process 12 to 18 months prior to the mitzvah. Having a full year for planning gives you plenty of time to bring the occasion to fruition so that it is meaningful and joyous for your family.
Why is this a critical aspect of a mitzvah?
It’s important to lay the groundwork for future generations. The mitzvah rite-of-passage will help guide the individual to make his or her own decisions. Hopefully, this experience will inspire them to continue to learn and feel comfortable in a synagogue whether here or out of town. BM