What if we could radically shift our mindset about bar/bat mitzvah and view it as a real portal into an engaged adult Jewish life? An innovative and pluralistic approach would captivate the interest of a wider range of our Jewish community. This would be a powerful tool for engaging not only our teens, but also their families.
This wouldn’t be simple. We need to undo decades of hard-wiring. “Adult Jewish life” means very different things to different people, so it stands to reason that the training process and ceremony cannot be a one-size-fits-all experience.
I have begun to experiment with different ways the bar mitzvah ceremony can reflect the diversity of Jewish lives. The solution I have found works best is simultaneously more flexible and more content-rich. With a broader lens, this coming-of-age process includes not just synagogue skills, but also conversations around Jewish identity, project management skills, community service, and the stretching of kids’ minds to see the world in shades of gray. Students and families work together to articulate personalized learning goals, and their different answers inform the multiplicity of approaches — from traditional Shabbat services (featuring prayer leadership, divrei torah, and Torah trope) to creating Jewish educational videos and games, learning tangible skills like Passover seder leadership, or incorporating art interests like photography or klezmer. The Jewish community is ripe for innovation — over the past decade there’s been a flourishing ecosystem of Jewish innovation across the country, with hundreds of startup organizations connecting Jews in a panoply of ways. The bar/bat mitzvah is one of the few broadly practiced rituals that could reshape American Jewish identity, if only we can emphasize meaning over memorization.
The Seattle Jewish community needs to invest in a “Big Vision,” one that will address a question that I believe is absolutely vital to the future of Jewish life in Puget Sound: How can we get Jews from highly diverse identities, backgrounds, and levels of Jewish experience in Seattle to forge transformative alliances that can move our community toward becoming more sustainable, healthy, and relevant?
What is that vision? I have no idea. I think there are others, though, who just might. And most of them can’t vote — yet.
Have you ever heard of Human-Centered Design (HCD)? HCD is a design framework that develops solutions to problems by involving the human perspective in all steps of the problem-solving process. HCD typically fuels solutions that resonate more deeply with the community of people who are facing the problem — ultimately driving engagement and growth.
What if we identified and gathered a truly diverse group of 40 Jewish high school sophomores from around Puget Sound who show potential to be exemplary servant leaders (leaders who instinctively share power, put the needs of others first, and help their peers develop and perform as highly as possible)?
What if we partnered with the leading HCD school — Stanford’s Design School — to create a two-year curriculum in which these students learned the HCD methodology? What if they could get college credit for the experience?
What if, during those two years, each student was assigned a mentor from one of Slingshot’s most innovative Jewish organizations, and spent the summer of their junior year interning for that organization (room, board, and stipend included)? What if students were tasked with presenting solutions to our community’s most pressing problems? And what if, to paraphrase Stanford Design School founder David Kelly, they made their decisions based on what Jews in the future will really want, instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence? Sounds innovative to me.