Our Bar/Bat Mitzvah program requires a minimum of two years to complete, with concurrent classes and individual preparation. Each student is unique and works at his or her own pace. The precise date for the celebration always remains flexible and is set only upon completion of key assignments.
Some students have attended our KidSchool since they were 3 years old, others join us at age 11, while still others decide after passing the traditional age of 13 that they are now ready to embark on the program. We have had remarkable, thoughtful celebrations by 14 and 15 year olds.
Students are entrusted with the responsibility for undertaking the program and for making choices about what topics they want to research. They learn to defend their choices and opinions in a community of caring but demanding adults in the congregation, including their teachers, their mentor, the program director, and the rabbi. Most importantly, the children learn how to make connections between the topics they investigate and the life choices they are making.
Each student is individually mentored and guided through the process by an adult member of the Congregation. The mentor functions as a guide and a resource, who encourages the student to think more deeply about each element of the program. Individualized attention helps the student to set goals and meet deadlines. Mentors are members of our community with a demonstrated commitment to working with young people. Many parents of previous bar/bat mitzvah students have become mentors to other children as a result of their own experience in our program.
Program elements include researching family history and family values, examining personal beliefs, picking a hero or role model, putting values into action through community service, exploring Jewish cultural activities, and choosing and developing a major project on any topic related to Jewish culture.
Family History and Values
Students collect and explore family stories by interviewing relatives. Through this process, they discover their families’ values and the roots of their own beliefs.
We honor and respect all the varying cultural backgrounds of our families. Our individualized program helps each student come to terms with all aspects of his/her unique cultural heritage. For some, this has included an investigation of multi-ethnic and non-Jewish roots and connections. Non-Jewish family members are encouraged to participate fully in the process.
Examining Personal Beliefs
Students at this age begin to formulate their own views and ideas on a range of topics. We encourage this process of discovery. Students are challenged to think about their own beliefs and understanding of their personal Jewish heritage and their place and role within Jewish culture. Some have clear opinions about these matters, while for others it is a work-in-progress. There are no right or wrong answers. We are interested in stirring their minds and engaging them in a profound activity that will last a lifetime.
Picking a Hero or Role Model
Students use their values to establish criteria to select their individual hero and/or role model. This process engages them in discussion about values, issues of perfection and flaws, and their own aspirations for the future. Heroes and role models chosen by past students include:
Israeli prime ministers, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin
19th Century feminist and activist, Ernestine Rose
Film makers, Steven Spielberg and Michael Moore
Garment-worker organizer, Clara Lemlich
Sobibor-prison camp uprising leader, Leon Feldhendler
Performer and political activist, Paul Robeson
Civil rights activists, Martin Luther King and Michael Schwerner
Hebrew-language revivalist, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda
Talk show host and social commentator, Jon Stewart
Environmentalist, Rachel Carson
Jewish Rapper, Remedy
Putting Values Into Action: Community Service
Students are asked to identify a problem or group that is important to them; we then help them find volunteer work associated with their goal. In this way they develop guidelines that will help them later as they shape their own values.
Students can pick activities from a variety of categories:
Cheenuch / Education
Bikkur Holim / Visiting the Sick
Tikkun Olam / Bettering the World
Shmirat HaAdama / Guarding the Earth
Tzaar Baalei Hayyim / Concern for the suffering of animals
Examples of past activities have included: volunteering at a soup kitchen, holding a bake sale to raise money for a particular cause, collecting videotapes for a children’s residence, participating in the AIDS Walk, running a bingo game at a Senior Center, long-term tutoring of younger children, and engaging in political activism.
Tzedakah–Sharing our resources with others
As part of their Bar/Bat Mitzvah project, students are asked to select charities that are important to them, and then donate a percentage of their bar/bat mitzvah gift money to these organizations. It’s a worthy tradition to celebrate holidays and lifecycle events with charitable donations. Our students enjoy being thoughtful benefactors, and their parents and grandparents often join in too!
Exploring Jewish Cultural Activities
As part of their studies, students and their families are encouraged to take advantage of the many resources New York City offers by visiting cultural institutions such as the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and by attending movies, plays and concerts with Jewish themes. Our rabbi also has a wide assortment of Jewish-related videotapes to share with our students.
As a culmination to all these efforts, we ask our students to choose a major topic of Jewish learning in any aspect of Jewish culture that interests them. These projects have sometimes grown out of the earlier exploration of one’s family values and history, but this link is not required. We look for a way for students to delve into a particular subject that they will find engaging and that will strengthen their connection to their Jewish identity. Students have shared this project with the community in any number of forms including an oral presentation, a PowerPoint presentation, a self-produced video, or a personally choreographed dance. We welcome creativity!
Past topics have included:
The Holocaust and Righteous Gentiles
100 Years of Jewish Humor
Jewish Identity through Literature
Freud: Humanism and Mental Health
The Streets Were Paved With Cement: Jewish Immigration
Jews and the Garment Industry: Tying the Past to the Present
Radical Fashion and Fashion’s Radicals
The Development of Hebrew as a Modern Language
The History and Culture of Jewish Foods
Our Community Shares…And Keeps Growing
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah service is a joyful experience, filled with readings, songs, and presentations of the essays and projects that the student has produced throughout the program. The student helps lead the service with family members and friends participating. The entire City Congregation community is enriched when we witness our children taking steps toward adulthood.
Each Child Is Unique
All children are encouraged to participate in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. We make every effort to accommodate special needs and to educate every student in accordance with his or her intellectual and emotional abilities.
In the Classroom
We educate our children in our cultural, ethical and historical Jewish heritage through a program that focuses on values, symbols, folklore, food, music, literature, roots and history.
The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Year 1 curriculum (usually 6th and 7th grade students) focuses on the theme of tzedakah (charity). Students explore the Jewish response to poverty from ancient to modern times in order to understand the Jewish mandate to eradicate poverty. There are also units on the Holocaust and Israel.
Year 2 (7th grade and up) focuses on Jewish history, making the distinction between legend and fact. There is a special emphasis on the emergence of modern secular and cultural options for Jewish identity.
Sources of Jewish Learning and Wisdom
For Humanistic Jews, the Torah is part of a vast heritage of Jewish literature that includes the Bible, Talmud, medieval commentaries, modern philosophy, contemporary fiction and memoirs. This material instructs us and records the journeys and experiences of our people; from it we learn how to connect with our heritage and live our lives.
We do not assign a Torah portion. However, students are welcome to study any part of ancient or modern Jewish literature, and to examine it critically as part of their major project. One student examined the Noah story in the context of other ancient flood myths and modern scientific knowledge. Another analyzed the theme of the “pen versus the sword” in both Biblical times and contemporary Israel.
Knowing What We Say
Many of us in our own Bar or Bat Mitzvahs read the Hebrew words of the liturgy without knowing what they meant. That practice is inconsistent with our belief that it is important to know what one is saying. One of our core values is that we say what we believe and believe what we say. Most of our students stay with English, although students with Israeli roots and a bilingual upbringing have easily incorporated Hebrew. We support a student’s desire to learn Hebrew or Yiddish as language comprehension, not just the ability for rote repetition. We applaud the student’s enthusiasm for this challenge, which we regard as an additional project that they choose to undertake, and we are happy to help find an appropriate tutor.
Our Parents Love the Program
Our parents are grateful for the opportunity to be involved in their children’s education and to teach by example. As children interview their parents and grandparents, meaningful discussions are initiated and relationships are enriched. We encourage parents to be involved, but not to be over-involved.
What this congregation asks of its Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids is radical. Self discovery, values clarification, engagement with texts and the world in a deep analytical way at a moment in their lives when cleaning their room is an impossible task. And yet you did it–not clean your room–the other more impressive stuff. –Howard Segan, father of Liana
I’m truly excited and thrilled. This changes everything for us. I’ve attended many uncomfortable, boring and less-than-meaningful Bat Mitzvahs where the children mumbled some incomprehensible words and everyone was focused on the party afterward. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting our daughter through that. With this program we’re not pushing something on her, we’re sharing what we want her to value and she’s choosing what’s important to her. We’re all involved. It feels as if the whole family is being Bat Mitzvahed. –Mickie Mandel, mother of Lanny
Our Children Are Proud of Themselves
For me, becoming a Bat Mitzvah is all about learning to make choices. I chose which person I admired as a role model. I chose the kinds of social action programs where I could contribute the most. I knew that my Rabbi and mentor trusted me and so did my parents. Making choices meant taking more responsibility and the more responsibly I act, the more choices I will be able to make in the future. –Irene Grosso <
Becoming a Bat Mitzvah took a lot of effort and time. I worked very hard with my mentor and spent many evenings talking with my parents about the topics. I worked extra hard writing essays about everything I was thinking and learning. I know now that I am capable of such hard work and of devoting so much time to something I love. I am proud to be Jewish and feel like I have really earned my place amongst the adult community of City Congregation. –Molly Rose Avila
I realized that that the whole process of a Bar Mitzvah has helped me to be more independent. It has also helped me to express myself with much more clarity and thoughtfulness. The creation of these papers has helped me understand how to put beliefs and ideas together in a meaningful way. It also helped establish what I value and helped me to realize how I fit into Jewish culture and religion. I found out that being Jewish does not have to do so much with faith or prayer, as it does with being part of the Jewish culture and community. –Jake Mann
Be Part of a Secular and Cultural Jewish Tradition
Here’s what some famous secular Jews have said:
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence–these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it. –Albert Einstein
Until we are all free, we are none of us free. –Emma Lazarus
Whatsoever is contrary to nature is contrary to reason, and whatsoever is contrary to reason is absurd. –Baruch Spinoza
If these are the messages you want your child to embrace, if this is the kind of experience you want your child to undergo, then consider The City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program.
Our children go forth in the world, secure in their connection to the Jewish people, able to be citizens of the world and to practice the values they have identified for all humanity.
Come join us!
For more information, call 212-213-1002.