Understanding the Bar Mitzvah Tradition By Experience

Frequently, people are surprised by the diversity of people I call friends and the experiences that come with that. Recently I had an experience that I now realize isn’t necessarily a common one for everyone. I attended the bar mitzvah of a dear friend of the family.

This is the third time I’ve gone to Temple Israel in Memphis (@TIMemphis, Temple Israel  Facebook, TIMemphis YouTube, etc)  for such an important event in the life of a teenager — a bar mitzvah for a distant cousin when I was in school and more recently a bat mitzvah. As I watched Sam’s bar mitzvah unfold, I thought I really should share it. I know you can google “bar mitzvah” and find lots of info, but I think given the nature of the event, the personal insight blogging offers could be beneficial so I asked Sam’s mom (Nancy) and she said go for it, so here goes.

Bar Mitzvah Basics

Just saying that I’ve been to a bat mitzvah and a couple of bar mitzvah celebrations may make people wonder what the difference is. Bat mitzvah is for girls and bar mitzvah is for guys. Since this happens when a child is 13 its thought of as a rite of passage or a coming of age, but it is more than that because of the religious study and significance. They are both connected to Judaism’s practice of recognizing when a person take responsibility for their religious practice. In that regard, it is somewhat like a baptism in Christianity.

The words bar/bat mitzvah are Aramaic and Hebrew for “son/daughter of the commandment” and it signals the time at which an individual can take on additional religious privileges and responsibilities. Before the study for their bar/bat mitzvah, children voluntarily are participate in Jewish duty but through the study, there is a celebration of their accepting their sacred responsibilities.

Celebrating the Bar Mitzvah

The bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah process usually involves a celebration in the U.S. and many other parts of the world but I read that the celebration is optional. The move to bar mitzvah is accomplished whether or not a celebration is held. But each of the ones I’ve seen, included a service in the temple. The services have had some differences, but they were all very similar in some respects:

  • The person who reached bar mitzvah studied a significant amount prior to the service.
  • They helped plan some of the components.
  • There were programs which helped those of us who aren’t Jewish understand and follow along.
  • Prayers and responsive readings provided an opportunity for everyone at the service to participate.
  • Readings from the Torah were the central piece, with the celebrant doing a section.
  • Several family members participated as well as some of the close friends.
  • The music, the temple and the feelings invoked throughout the event were beautiful.

Sam’s Bar Mitzvah Service

Sam is a great guy. He’s got a great sense of self and loves being with other people. He can really make me laugh (and believe me, I’m not the only one. Early on in the service, the rabbi acknowledged Sam’s fun personality and how much fun it had been getting to spend time with him. The guy leading the music was great too… he even put some of the Hebrew chants to current music like John Mayer. With that kind of beat, I had to join in a bit.

Sam’s smile really grabs you. And sometimes it may make you wonder what he’s up to. Not in a bad way mind you, just in a “he must be thinking” way. 🙂 We saw that smile several times during the service. There were lots of smiles during the service. Sam made the rabbis, his parents and everyone else smile quite a bit and his aunt’s made us all laugh as they tried to read in Hebrew… something they may not have worked on as much as Sam or his sister Maggie did. 🙂

[ I feel like I have to take a small aside and repeat for the blog crowd what I kept saying on Saturday, Maggie was incredible again. Her bat mitzvah a few years ago was awesome and its moving to see how much she’s grown since. ]

But the smiles and even laughter never meant we forgot the reason we were all there. It just shows that indeed we are family. The tears were more common. The final achievement of an event that Kent and Nancy have anticipated for Sam’s entire life…. that’s big. He had done his study well. His readings from the Torah were fantastic. His voice and pronunciation as clear as his confidence in who he is. That is what showed me Sam has truly come into his own. You couldn’t listen to him talk about the passages from the Torah without thinking about what a great heart he has. And as we all listened to Nancy and Kent share their speeches, you could see how they brim with humility and pride at the same time.

inspiration for prayer - peaceFamily and friends were a major part of the event. One of the really cool additions with Sam’s service that I don’t remember previously being done is it was simulcast on the web so family who were not able to travel for some reason could still see the service. What a great touch! And something else that struck me quickly. Sam had several friends participate — alongside the friends who were Jewish, were boys and girls who were Baptist, Catholic, Muslim and Protestant. The inclusiveness seemed to match with many of the passages included in the readings about peace and acceptance of difference. One of the last pieces of the service, was the rabbi’s reminder that now that Sam is “Bar Mitzvah” he has the responsiblity to do “good” in the world, not just the Jewish community. He certainly seems to have started on the right path!

Sam’s Celebratory Fun

I’m guessing the celebration part is much easier to picture! Since the event included lots of family and friends from out of town, Nancy and Kent planned to have a lot of time with people who came in. Since Nancy’s originally from New York, she made plans to get people around to some of the sights — I know several found the National Civil Rights Museum moving and that’s a regular for me to share with guests too.  It started Friday night with a gathering at their home. Sam and friends spent some time swimming, people had great food and conversation.

Saturday, the focus in the morning was the service, with a lunch so everyone could visit and celebrate. There was a great slide show of photos of Sam playing with fun music, lots of smiles to be had! It was great seeing so many family members and friends all there for Sam’s big day.

That evening was a party, really it was a carnival. 🙂  A lot of Sam’s friends came for that. There was a DJ that had great dance music going all night and although that was really oriented to the kids and most of the grownups stayed in a quieter room nearby, my niece, sister & I had to dance quite a bit. We enjoyed carnival food — pronto pups, chips, popcorn, Italian ices, etc. There was a fortune teller, a candy bar where shots were mixed to order, games like ring toss and more. It was like a birthday party on turbo.

Your Experience or Questions

I’m sure I missed a lot in writing this post and I would love to hear from you about questions you have or bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs you’ve been to!

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Related Posts

Last summer’s trip to Israel comes to mind frequently when talking religion. Some of the posts you may find of interest on one of my big trips, include:


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About Janice Person

I'm Janice & this blog is about my passions -- photography, travel, agriculture & whatever else comes to mind. Putting all those things together is intriguing to me…. I can spend a lot of time soaking it up! It's almost always a colorful adventure!

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14 Responses to Understanding the Bar Mitzvah Tradition By Experience

  1. Neisan July 10, 2012 at 11:15 am #

    Hi Janice,

    I wished children could have a reason to celebrate every single day.
    Unfortunately, religion encourages adults to force (inherited “truth”) in children at a very young and vulnerable age. 
    With the best of intentions, parents systematically brain wash kids with a variety  of myths (depending on where they are born). In most cases this gives children the false sense of superiority over other children. obviously very group can not be “saved” or in the case of Judaism, the “chosen ones”.
    This sense of superiority  usually becomes more evident when as adults they enter into conflicts with other groups based on, again the superiority of  one “truth” or myth over another. 

    It is unfair, almost abusive to involve children in religious activities, even if the occasion is one of celebration.
    I think  if we were to hold-off inserting religion in children, at least until they are old enough and have the capabilities to rationalize such questionable claims, humanity would engage in far less conflicts.

    “to see by faith is to close the eyes of reason”

    • Janice Person July 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm #


      I know your religious experience has probably been shaped by a lot of forces and I have certainly seen religion be used on children in very negative ways. The part of the world your family is from certainly doesn’t corner that market.

      However, I don’t feel a blanket statement about not including kids in religion is in order. And in this case, I really think that Sam’s parents got it right.

      His religion is really part of who he is and he’s a guy who’s closest friend is a Persian guy. The two of them give me hope that religions can become the force they really can be more than they have been. I also have a lot of friends seeking to do that without religion. Both ways can work in my opinion.


  2. dadblunders July 11, 2012 at 1:40 am #

    Thank you for sharing this Janice! I have never had the honor of being invited to a bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs. I do know the Jewish faith is rich in culture and history and visiting Jerusalem has always been towards the top of my list of things to do.

    I know that the synagogue works very hard for a young boy/girl to understand their responsibilities before these ceremonies. I believe that because of this the children are far better prepared to work in the community and in life in general. It is not an easy or quick process for the children. They receive a lot of support that they might not get otherwise to help them understand their beliefs.

    • Janice Person July 11, 2012 at 11:06 pm #

      Jerusalem was incredible. I woke up everyday in Israel amazed I was there. Something on the agenda everyday traced back to my earliest memories. I’d love to go again.

  3. Neisan July 11, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    You are correct Janice.
    I grew up in a country where death is the legal punishment for apostasy.
    Where barbaric behavior such as stoning is performed in public venues, often with children in participation. 
    These teachings have deep roots not only in Quran, but also in the Bible and Torah. The fact that civilized nations ban these and other religious absurdity does not mean that these teachings no longer exist in holy books.
    The good in religion is outweigt by the horrible…by far. 
    For this reason a “blanket” is needed to cover all holy teachings. local laws do not define religion, holy books do.
    Why should children trust religion as to who they are and where they are going, when religion has been proven wrong as to who we are and where we come from.
    Sam getting along with his Iranian friend is encouraging and common among children. But, finding religious adult Jews and Muslims at a dinner table is rare….for reasons of superiority due to childhood indoctrination.

    It is unfair to label children, even if for the purpose of a celebration.
    There are no Jewish children, only children of Jewish Parents.

    By the way, do you still have plans to come to Chicago?

    • Janice Person July 11, 2012 at 10:02 pm #

      Well, I have to tell you I was raised with religion as were Sam’s parents and we all have great friends who were raised Muslim. And we gather for dinner. Sometimes even talk about religion. I’ve got to think that people of various philosophies — whether they encourage or discourage religion with their kids — have a responsibility to help create the world they want, both in the short-term and long-term. Some of that is through basic moral teachings, which religion can help instill and some is through other actions, even voting in places that provide that possibility.

      I can tell I need to figure out when I’m coming to Chicago to visit. We’ll have a lot to talk about for sure! I’ll check my schedule & find a weekend I can come up.

  4. Neisan July 12, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

    In 7th grade, when my teacher asked for the non-Muslims to raise their hand I, the only kid born to Bahai parents was singled out to stay in class as others lined-up in the school yard to say the mandatory noon prayers.
    After being exposed, my desk-mate and closest friend in class asked to be moved to a different section, as if I had a contagious illness.
    Similar to Judaism, Baha’i scripture encourages everyone to “independent search of truth”, but urges parents to enlist kids by having them sign a “declaration card” at 13, announcing complete faith in god and the prophet founder.
    I guess by 13 one expects a child to have had enough time and comprehension to complete one’s research on the subject of religion, divinity or lack thereof.
    Enlist them while they are still young and vulnerable. This is the strategy.
    My previous references were not toward the customized and personalized version of religion.
    For the most part, religion in the west is a water-downed version of the real thing, thanks to democratic government regulations. Prayer in schools for example, seems harmless enough, but un-constitutional for good reasons. This reminds me of a bumper sticker someone removed from my car when I was visiting my cousin in Memphis a few years ago. It read; Don’t pray in my school and I won’t think in your church!
    With respect, your non-confrontational experience with your non-Christian friends is probably the result of your gravity toward moderate open-minded people, based on respect, communication and toleration.
    Moderation is the key, but unfortunately, true religion does not allow for moderation.
    I refer to the prevalent orthodox branches of religion practiced in Jerusalem, Baghdad, Esfahan, Damascus (and Utah!), where innocent children and young adults are forced to follow the same path as their parents…where questioning common faith is thought to be a sin and punishable with severity.
    Bar-Mitzvahs and declaration signings are an un-noticeable process in brain washing children, designed to follow by blind faith.   
    I doubt the Muslim friends you mentioned are obligated by their Imam to practice and promote Sharia Law in your current or past communities (especially in the Southern Bible Belt).
    I also doubt that you or your close Christian (or moderately Christian) friends are part of the growing conservatives trying to pass legislation to ban and replace Darwin’s natural selection with creationism in public schools.
    While I disagree with your views on religion prescribed for children, I admire your positivity.

  5. mindy July 13, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    This was a wonderful (and informational)recap of what sounded to be a very inspirational and meaningful event in the lives of Sam and his family. While not everyone may understand the significance of this event in a Jewish boy or girl’s life, it is with great hope that the children involved do. It is really important to keep everything in perspective–this is primarily a religious event, and the party (while usually celebratory and great fun) is most definitely secondary. To my own family–an interfaith family–and the families of many of my friends, this was a great opportunity to wrap ourselves around each other and embrace our religion, our lives, and our world. A special “Tikkun Olam” project is included at our temple, meaning the Bar or Bat Mitzvah must at this time, become part of a charity or community service project, with the intention of continuing with the practice throughout their lives. “Tikkun Olam” means to “repair the world,” and it the basis of Judaism. Thank you, Janice for your piece.

    • Janice Person July 15, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

      Did I miss that? Yes, TI includes the community service component as well. Great way for kids to learn that we all have a role in making the world we live in better!

  6. Renee A. Schuls-Jacobson July 13, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Hi Janice. My son just became a bar mitzvah on June 23, 2012. Thirty-three years to the day that his father made his bar mitzvah — in the same temple on the same bimah. I think it is important to recognize that you were obviously in a VERY reformed congregation. Obviously, photographs were allowed during the service and the WEB streaming – while — lovely — would not be allowed for those who truly adhere to more stringent rules of Shabbat. I was not surprised to learn that is congregation is in Tennessee. Jews have had to assimilate a lot in the South as a way to survive, and I think it is lovely when people can share different cultural traditions.

    I will be running several posts starting next week about my son’s bar mitzvah. You might enjoy coming to check them out and see how they jibed with your experience as a member of the congregation. You are spot on with the joy thing. I had no idea what I would feel — but yes, gratitude and joy top the list. I don’t have the kinds of photos that you do, but hopefully my words will paint the picture.

    That said, I LOVE the font on your blog. Jealous!

    I’m Renée at Teachers & Twits. Nice to meet you!

    • Janice Person July 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

      Thank you Renee for the kind words about my post. I have to tell you, I wasn’t sure if photos were allowed so although I snapped these with my camera and felt the streaming may signal it was ok, I checked with Nancy before even starting to write my post. I wanted to be respectful to the religious practices and the family’s preferences as well.

      I look forward to seeing your posts because I understand TI is a reformed contraction. We have a number of other synagogues but alas I haven’t had a chance to participate elsewhere. I do have friends who practice more conservatively but so far timing hasn’t worked for me to see one of their bar mitzvahs due to travel needs, etc. having lived in NY for several years, I know there is a major spectrum, at least in the US andi saw a tiny bit of the difference while on vacation there.

  7. The Vicki Winters Show- July 21, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    I love a good Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and I’ve been to some great ones!

    • Janice Person July 21, 2015 at 9:38 am #

      They can be so motivating! Some great things being done.


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