B’nai mitzvah children and parents alike can ease – and enjoy – the process by following these tips
If a bar or bat mitzvah is a Jewish child’s first step toward adulthood, it’s also frequently a parent’s first time planning a large-scale event and seeing his or her child on the big stage.
For children who didn’t come out of the cradle chanting Torah and parents who don’t work as event planners, the day can turn into a smorgasbord of stress.
It doesn’t have to, say experts like local tutors Caren Kirchick and Ed Kneitel. Just follow these tips, or commandments if you will.
Let’s start with the b’nai mitzvah.
Thou shalt play a part in the happiness of your bar/bat mitzvah experience
Expressing your needs in a mature fashion is part of being a grownup. If there is someone at the synagogue or temple you attend whom you happen to feel very comfortable with, or if you know a friend who really likes his or her tutor, tell Mom and Dad. Working with someone you know and like will make the process easier.
Thou shalt be patient
A bar or bat mitzvah is not easy to prepare for. Some students struggle with tropes, signs above or below a Hebrew text indicating pronunciation. Some struggle with the Hebrew itself. Some struggle to combine the two. Give it time.
Thou shalt work
Yuck! It’s true, though. Think about it this way: 20 minutes a day keeps the bar mitzvah bomb away. Daily practice could even lead to an early finish.
Homework will likely be assigned – so you should be prepared for the extra load.
“At any level, people do great at their bar or bat mitzvah,” says Kirchick, who frequently tutors children at The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood. “The kids who will struggle are the kids who refuse to practice or don’t have time to practice because they’re too busy.”
Thou shalt add, not subtract
Don’t worry about planning too little at that first expectation-setting meeting with your tutor. If “worst comes to worst” and you finish early, you can always add a prayer or two.
Thou shalt avoid memorization like the plague
Some degree of memorization is natural. Many children absorb Jewish prayers and songs through a sort of osmosis as they participate in holidays and services. But just as in school, the best way to learn is to learn, not memorize.
“I make recordings where necessary but I try not to because the goal is for this student post-b’nai mitzvah to hopefully become a future leader in their congregation,” says Kneitel, who tutors many at Congregation Shaarey Tikvah in Beachwood. “They would not be able to do that learning their Torah portion or Haftorah from a recording.”
Thou shalt chant – at least a little – if at all possible
Yes, chanting and singing can be intimidating. When it comes to the Torah, however, it really is preferable, Kirchick says. Reading is substantially harder.
Thou shalt not cram
Save the last-minute miracles for world history.
“Typically, we say even though your bar or bat mitzvah is a certain date, you really should be done with everything a minimum of three to four weeks prior,” Kirchick says. “That makes the last month just a review month.”
Thou shalt not be alone come bar/bat mitzvah day
The nightmare has you standing in front of hundreds of people stumbling over your Torah portion with no one to help you. That’s not true. You are part of a team. Depending on your ability, the service can be divided between rabbi, tutor, cantor and loved ones.
“The goal is for the child to succeed,” Kirchick says. “We never want to put a child on the bimah that’s not ready just so they can meet the deadline.”
Thou shalt know the stage
A bar or bat mitzvah is not all that different from a school play. Your tutor will likely bring you to the temple or venue beforehand to do a full walkthrough and/or rehearsal. Kirchick brings her students in three weeks prior for a session with the cantor. They’ll hold the Torah. They’ll learn to read from it.
“If I feel this is a child that needs more than one run-through, then we will go back to the sanctuary as many times as we need to until they are comfortable,” Kirchick says.
Thou shalt continue your Jewish education
Do you remember that states and capitals quiz you crammed for when you were 11? How many do you remember now? If you don’t want to forget Hebrew the way you forgot the capital of South Dakota (Pierre, by the way), Kneitel notes that many temples keep a list of competent service leaders – and are looking for more. In addition, you can become active in your congregation’s youth group or consider a Jewish day camp or overnight camp.
“I would hope they would retain the service, because that’s something that’s a life skill, and no matter where they’re at, it would be nice to have the service,” Kirchick says.
Parents, we have you covered too.
Thou shalt start at age 12
Parents, you fortunately don’t have to do much in preparing your child for his or her bar or bat mitzvah. No need to buy a Rosetta Stone and learn Hebrew. Your job is simply to set your child up with a tutor – and to do that on time. Children typically need six to 12 months to prepare. Be cautious and bring your child in a year prior, so he or she can be assessed and a plan figured out. If the family will be spending some time out of town, you may need to adjust and come in earlier.
“I gauge their competency and then I build on that,” Kneitel says. “I use that as a framework for my starting point for tutoring.”
Thou shalt find a tutor
If you belong to a synagogue, the process is usually fairly straightforward. If you don’t belong to a synagogue, don’t fear. Try calling a local synagogue. Chances are that synagogue has a list of tutors that it has worked with in the past. Also, try asking friends whom their kids worked with or if they’ve heard of anyone good. Word of mouth is one of the top ways people find tutors.
Rest assured, “someone will take your child on,” says Kirchick.
Thou shalt make tutoring as easy as possible for you and your child
Dream big. There are so many tutors out there that you’re bound to find someone who fits your family’s schedule. Some tutor after school. Some prefer weekends. Some tutor at the temple. One might tutor right down the block from you.
“When picking a tutor, you have to make sure that your child’s and your schedule works for everybody because it is a commitment,” Kirchick says. “It’s every week for at minimum six months.”
Thou shalt communicate with your tutor
Don’t wait until the bar or bat mitzvah is complete to tell the tutor that you wished your child had sung Adon Olam because it’s your favorite or that he or she had performed the Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of a loved one. Parents have vastly different expectations for what their children should do. Different synagogues have different guidelines as well. This should all be discussed right away.
“Some parents want their children to do everything possible and others are comfortable with their children doing the bare minimum,” Kneitel says. “I start with setting expectations.”
Thou shalt encourage your child
A bar or bat mitzvah is a heady, scary time. Encourage your child. Tell him or her stories of your bar or bat mitzvah. Tell them about a time when you couldn’t just Google translate Hebrew to English and vice versa.
Thou shalt help your child make time
Time management is hard for many grownups, let alone children. Help your bar or bat mitzvah-to-be out. Preparing for a bar or bat mitzvah – particularly learning what in many cases is a new language – is hard work and takes time. Your tutor will likely expect your child to practice/do homework for 15-30 minutes a day. Make sure your child has that time.
“Parents know their children better than tutors,” Kirchick says. “It’s obviously the parents’ call, this would never be a tutor’s call, but if they would ask me, maybe one play, but I wouldn’t recommend three plays in a six-month period.”
Thou shalt keep the bar mitzvah about the bar mitzvah
You always wanted to perform in front of hundreds at
PlayhouseSquare. Doesn’t matter, this is about your child. If your child gets anxious in public or has expressed fear about singing in front of a large crowd, you probably shouldn’t book Quicken Loans Arena for the ceremony and you probably should limit the guest list.
Thou shalt remain calm
Planning a large event isn’t easy. Focus on that. Don’t worry so much about the Hebrew. That’s the tutor’s job.
“If they’re on board and I’ve done my job then a parent really should’ve only needed to prod their child to study more often,” Kneitel says.
Thou shalt be positive
If a child feels coerced, forced or pressured, he or she is unlikely to enjoy the experience and Judaism as a whole. Try to remind your child that his or her bar or bat mitzvah will be a joyous occasion. Frame everything that way. Try taking your child to a bar or bat mitzvah so he or she can appreciate what one is.
Thou shalt be happy
Don’t forget that a bar or bat mitzvah is, well, for lack of a better word, a mitzvah. Enjoy the moment. Revel in your child’s accomplishment and hard work. This is a wonderful opportunity for your child to celebrate the blessing of a job well done. Congratulate them – and yourself – heartily.
“They should just be very supportive and thrilled for their child that they’re about to become a b’nai mitzvah,” Kneitel says.
This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.