The Liberal Synagogue Elstree

Bar and Bat Mitzvah at TLSE

This page (reproduced from our booklet) has been prepared to explain about bar- and bat-mitzvah at TLSE, to try to answer some of the questions you may have and perhaps to raise some questions you have not yet considered. We understand that the ceremony is very important to those families who choose to mark it and it also becomes a very important part of our synagogue year and history. It can and should be a milestone in the life of a young Jewish person and, should you and your child(ren) choose to mark the occasion with a celebration, we hope to be able to work with you to make it as meaningful an event as possible. Let us all enjoy the celebrations together!

The History of Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah

Q: What exactly is Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah?

A: Two thousand years ago, the Rabbis of ancient Israel were deliberating at what point a child should be obliged to carry out the mitzvot, the commandments of Judaism. They recognised that girls matured more quickly than boys and also that they had domestic responsibilities which made it difficult for them to observe certain mitzvot, specifically those which were limited to a particular time. So the Rabbis decided that girls became bat-mitzvah (which means 'daughter of the commandments') at the age of 12. Boys, on the other hand, were not excused from these time-bound mitzvot and the rabbis decided that 13 was the age where they were obliged to observe them. At this time, no ceremony was attached to reaching the age of bar- or bat-mitzvah.

In the Middle Ages, the custom was introduced of calling a boy to the Torah on the Shabbat immediately following his thirteenth birthday. At this time in Jewish history, the Jews lived in close-knit communities where great emphasis was placed on boys' education (which was exclusively in Jewish subjects). Consequently, a knowledgeable boy could read Torah or lead the congregation in prayer from as young as 6 years old. But to recite the blessings before the Torah, he had to be 13. In orthodox Jewish tradition, certain prayers can only be recited if there is a minyan (10 men over the age of 13) present. The purpose of calling a boy to recite the Torah blessings the week after his 13th birthday was to notify the congregation that, in future, this boy could be included in a minyan.

More recently, the idea of making this event an occasion for celebration was introduced. The tradition also became established that this was the moment when a boy would read from the Torah for the first time (though as explained above, this was not a privilege which was previously denied to him). The emergence of Liberal Judaism meant that an identical ceremony of bat-mitzvah was now available to girls (as distinct from the orthodox bat-mitzvah ceremony, also know as bat-chayil, which takes place at the age of 12 and is a pale shadow of its male equivalent owing to the restrictions on female involvement in orthodox Judaism).

In the end, it is not essential to mark this transition into adolescence (or Jewish 'adulthood') by participating in a religious service. A child becomes bar- or bat-mitzvah as soon as s/he reaches the age of 13.

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Bar- and Bat-Mitzvah at TLSE

Q: How is bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrated at TLSE?

A: As mentioned, the only essential element of a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony is the young person being called to the Torah and reciting the blessings before and after a reading. However it is now the 'norm' for a child to read a section from the Torah and the haftarah, the additional reading from the later books of the Hebrew Bible. In orthodox synagogues, the entire weekly portion is read from the Torah, usually by the Rabbi or chazan, and a boy becoming bar-mitzvah will read the final section - known as the maftir. The Liberal tradition is to read and translate just a short section each week and this is read in its entirety by the young person. The translation can either be read after the Hebrew has been completed or a phrase or a verse at a time, according to choice and ability. The bar- or bat-mitzvah will also read the week's haftarah (in English) as well as the blessings before and after each of these portions. It is also expected that the young person will present an explanatory introduction to the Torah portion and haftarah - the Rabbi will assist with the preparation of this. Young people may also lead the congregation in some of the prayers in the service: eg the Sh'ma and the Amidah but this is not a requirement. Finally, the young person recites the prayer for Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah in front of the open ark. This prayer can be found on page 591 of the Siddur lev Chadash.

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Preparation for the Bar-/Bat-Mitzvah Ceremony

Q: When does the process leading to bar- or bat-mitzvah begin?

A: The Rabbi will contact you around 18 months in advance of your child's 13th birthday to arrange a date. A date will be agreed, based on your requirements, the secular and the Jewish calendar and the synagogue's other commitments. Traditionally, the 13th anniversary of the Hebrew date on which the child was born is the earliest available date for a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony (this can be as much as 20 days either side of the child's actual birthday) but Liberal practice is to use the civil date as the starting point. A ceremony can take place at any time after the child has turned thirteen; there is no deadline!

Q: The bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony clearly needs a lot of preparation. When does this commence?

A: Ideally, your child(ren) will have attended the synagogue's Religion School from age 5. Although this does not specifically prepare children for their bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony, it does familiarise them with the synagogue, the Hebrew language and the concept of religious services. This is also achieved by bringing your child(ren) to festival and other services, particularly ones which are geared towards our younger members. Details of such services and events can always be found in ha-Kol the shul magazine.

Formal preparation for the bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony commences a year before the proposed date. When a child reaches this stage, s/he graduates from the Sunday morning Religion School and joins the twice-monthly Saturday morning class. This class does not offer Hebrew tuition; its purpose is to give the students approaching the age of bar- or bat-mitzvah an understanding of their Jewish heritage and, in particular, the Liberal interpretation of it. The class takes place at 9.30 on a Saturday morning (usually the first and third Saturday of each month - always check ha-Kol for details) and participants are expected to remain in synagogue for the service, where it is hoped they will be joined by other family members. Families of bar-/bat-mitzvah candidates are also invited to sign up for a rota to be responsible form organising an occasional Saturday morning kiddush on a morning when the class takes place: the more who sign up, the less frequently you will be asked for your support!

Q: How does our child prepare to read the Hebrew parts of the service?

A: The Hebrew elements of a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony are only a small part of the event - though candidates - and their parents - seem most anxious about this! Around 6 months before the ceremony, the Rabbi will give the candidate a CD with the Torah portion and the Torah and haftarah blessings. The Rabbi is available one weekday evening at the synagogue to monitor the progress of bar- and bat-mitzvah candidates; appointments can be made via the synagogue. As the date of the ceremony approaches, these are likely to become weekly sessions. An appointment lasts between 20 and 30 minutes.

Some parents choose to engage private Hebrew tutors to assist with their child(ren)'s progress. In the end, there is little that an adult - Rabbi or otherwise - can do to assist with the process. The only way to learn the Torah portion and other parts of the service is by regular practice and it's up to each child and their family to find a workable routine. The role of the Rabbi is like that of the director of a play: he will tell the students how they should deliver their lines and suggest ways of remembering them but the actual learning of them is up to the individual!

Once the Torah portion and the blessings have been mastered, it is possible that a student may wish to read some of the prayers in the service. These might include the Sh'ma (p.137 in Siddur Lev Chadash) and the first two paragraphs of the Amidah (p.140-142). Again, recordings of these readings can be provided by the rabbi or family members might seek to assist their own children but please remember that there are different pronunciations of Hebrew and the tradition at TLSE and in Liberal Judaism is to use the modern Sephardi pronunciation!

Q: Does a bar-/bat-mitzvah candidate continue to attend Sunday Religion School after turning 12?

A: The Sunday Religion School caters for children up to the age of 12. However, if a bar-/bat-mitzvah candidate needs remedial Hebrew work or reading practice, s/he may continue to attend on Sunday mornings where an environment conducive to learning and the availability of teachers can be of assistance.

Q: Are we expected to attend synagogue services?

A: Yes! Given that the bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony is a part of the synagogue service, it's absolutely essential that the bar-/bat-mitzvah candidate (and preferably the family too) are familiar with what happens at TLSE. The only way to do this is to attend services regularly; particularly on Shabbat mornings. Moreover, since part of the significance of the bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony is that it signifies a young person making their commitment to the community, it would be absurd for the young person not to have properly acquainted him- or herself with that community and its practices.

Although it is inappropriate to set a minimum number of services which should be attended, the Saturday morning bar-/bat-mitzvah class is timed specifically to encourage the students to stay for the service and for them to be collected at 10.50 am gives a very strange message. If parents are arriving at shul at this time, it should be to share the service with their child(ren), not remove them from it.

Q: What will happen if a bar-/bat-mitzvah candidate does not attend synagogue services regularly?

A: The level of synagogue - and bar-/bat-mitzvah class - attendance will be carefully monitored during the 12 months leading up to the ceremony. It will be reviewed after 6 months and, if the level of attendance is not deemed to be sufficient, a letter will be sent to the parents warning that that bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony will be postponed if there is no improvement. Three months later a further review will take place and if the situation remains unchanged, a meeting will take place with the family, the Rabbi and representatives of the Synagogue Executive. At this point a decision may well be reached which will lead to the postponement or cancellation of the proposed bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony.

Obviously individual circumstances will always be taken into account and each case will be treated on its own merits. Having said that, however, it must be remembered that a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony represents a commitment and, for the year leading up to the ceremony at least, it is expected that synagogue attendance and bar-/bat-mitzvah classes will take priority over other weekend activities.

Please note that if, as is often the case, a bar-/bat-mitzvah candidate has friends who are celebrating their own ceremonies in other congregations, a visit to another shul counts as part of the attendance requirement. There are, of course, weekly Friday night services and festival services and other events at which bar-/bat-mitzvah candidates are encouraged - indeed expected - to be present. Details can always be found in Hakol.

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Arrangements for the Ceremony

Q: What should be on the invitation?

A: There are many elements of the traditional bar-/bat-mitzvah invitation which it is not appropriate to include. For example, as explained above, our bar- and bat-mitzvah candidates do not read Maftir and Haftarah (and they certainly don't read Haftorah!); they read a section of the week's Torah portion and the Haftarah - and some also lead part of the service. Please don't refer to the reading as 'a portion of the Law' - another antiquated and inaccurate phrase. It's probably best to consult with the Rabbi before sending your invitation to the printer!

Because of difficulties with parking (and Jewish Mean Time!) it's advisable to put the start time for the service as "10.45 am for 11:00 am". Please also be aware that our building holds an absolute maximum of 160 people and our regular congregation numbers between 30 and 40. If you invite more than 120 people and they all turn up, they won't all get in.

Q: How do I arrange the kiddush?

A: Every Shabbat morning service at TLSE concludes with a kiddush, where wine, challah and some snacks are available. As parents of bar-/bat-mitzvah candidates will probably have invited a number of their own guests, they are expected to foot the bill for the extra food. Moreover, families often wish to provide a more elaborate kiddush for their guests in honour of the occasion. This can be arranged with our synagogue's kiddush committee which can offer a range of options to suit all tastes and pockets. Contact details can be found in Hakol.

Q: What other elements of the day need to be considered?

A: You will need to decide if you want flowers to decorate the synagogue and whether or not you would like the choir to be part of your child's bar-/bat-mitzvah service. These things all need to be booked well in advance. Some 4 months prior to the ceremony, the Honorary Secretary will contact you with a booking form to agree the administrative details of the service. Please make sure that this is returned in good time since, unless booked, there will not be flowers or a choir, there may not be an organist and only a regular kiddush.

Q: What will this cost?

A: The synagogue asks for a contribution of £200 towards the cost of bar-/bat-mitzvah classes and administration. Additional costs for the various items above are stated on the booking form. If there are difficulties in making this payment, please speak to the rabbi in confidence.

Q: Can we provide an explanatory booklet to put on the seats?

A: If you have guests who have not been to a Liberal service before, you may want to explain what goes on. You can provide a booklet and the Rabbi or Honorary Secretary will be happy to assist you. The booklet is normally an A4 folded sheet. Various versions have been used in the past and these are available for you to use or adapt. The shul is happy to offer its photocopier for these to be duplicated; please ensure that the contents are checked by the rabbi before they are printed! The Torah portion and the haftarah will be printed on a separate sheet available to all members of the congregation.

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The Final Week

Q: What will happen in the week before the ceremony?

A: A rehearsal will be arranged for an evening in the week leading up to the ceremony. This will be an opportunity fir the bar-/bat-mitzvah student to practice in front of a congregation (the family!) and for family members to be made aware of their roles on the day itself. It is particularly helpful if the ark openers are present so that they have an opportunity to practice this aspect of the service. This is also the time to tell the Rabbi if there are any deceased relatives whose names you would like recalled prior to the Kaddish. Their names can be read out in the service on the Shabbat morning.

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The Service

Q: How much of the service will my child participate in?

A: This has been addressed earlier in this booklet but it's worth listing here for the sake of clarity. The bar-/bat-mitzvah student will be called up once the scroll has been undressed and is open on the reading desk. This section of the service can be found on page 482 of Siddur Lev Chadash. The bar-bat-mitzvah will then:

  • Read his/her introduction to the Torah portion in English
  • Recite/sing the blessings before reading the Torah (p.482)
  • Read Torah portion from scroll
  • Read English translation of Torah portion
    (some students are able to translate their portion phrase by phrase but this is not a requirement)
  • Recite/sing the blessings after reading the Torah (p.482)
    (At this point the scroll is elevated.)
  • Read his/her introduction to the haftarah
  • Recite/sing blessing before haftarah (p.483)
  • Read haftarah (in English)
  • Recite/sing blessing after haftarah (p.484)
    (The service then continues with prayers for the Royal family etc (p.484-5), then the procession of the scroll at the end of which the bar-/bat-mitzvah and family will stand together on the bimah opposite the Rabbi before the ark)
  • Bar-/bat-mitzvah prayer p.591

Additionally, bar-/bat-mitzvah students may lead the congregtion in certain prayers in the service such as the Sh'ma (p.137) and the first section of the Amidah (p.140-142). This will all be decided well in advance of the bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony.

At the end of the service, a representative of the Synagogue Executive will make a presentation to the bar-/bat-mitzvah student. This is normally a copy of our prayerbook, Siddur Lev Chadash, with a commemorative bookplate.

Q: In what other elements of the service can we participate?

A: Members of the family are encouraged to take an active part in the bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony. Our Shabbat morning services include a themed reading, which can be led by a family member. Two people are needed to open the ark and undress and elevate the scroll - this mitzvah is often carried out by the parents of the young person. Other sections of the service can be led by family members or friends. No mitzvot are normally allocated to other congregants if there is a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony so that as many members of the family as possible can be involved.

The family of the bar- or bat-mitzvah candidate also has the opportunity to choose various aspects of the service such as the themed reading and the type of musical accompaniment (some choose the 'traditional' organ based service while others prefer some of our prayers to have the accompaniment of the guitar). You can also choose your favourite version of Adon Olam to conclude the service! All these options can be discussed with the rabbi well in advance of the ceremony.

Q: If my partner is not Jewish, are they excluded?

A: Not at all. If they are the other parent, then they should be acknowledged and be part of the celebration. We particularly encourage them to be on the bimah when the bar-/bat-mitzvah student recites the bar-/bat-mitzvah prayer. The policy of TLSE is not to allow non-Jews to read in the service or to have an active participatory role (such as carrying the scroll or opening the ark) since these are rituals which are specifically for Jews. However there are one or two readings (such as the prayer for the Royal Family) which it may be appropriate for a non-Jewish partner to read.

All worshippers, Jewish or not, are encouraged to use the synagogue prayerbooks as more than half of the service is in English. At TLSE, we prefer all men to have their heads covered; we have a number of spare kippot.

Q: If my partner is not the child's parent, can they participate?

A: Technically, yes - if Jewish, they can participate in any service, if not Jewish then the above paragraph applies. Changes in family structures are more and more frequent and numerous issues are raised with regard to the participation of biological parents and partners. An appointment with the Rabbi can be arranged to discuss the situation if you feel this will be helpful and it's important also to involve the bar-.bat-mitzvah student in the conversation.

Q: What arrangements are there for young children in the service?

A: Although a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony is meant to be a celebration for all the family, it can be difficult for young children to sit quietly through the service (which lasts around an hour and a half). Past experience suggests that the parents of young children feel the most uncomfortable when their children begin to behave disruptively, so it is left to their discretion whether or not to take their children out of the service. We have a room in the synagogue in which toys and books can be made available. This room is opposite a toilet in which there are baby-changing facilities. If you require a crèche for the day, please consult the Honorary Secretary.

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Remembering the Occasion

Q: Can photographs be taken during the service?

A: We do not permit the use of cameras or hand-held videos during the service. In exceptional circumstances (eg if there is a family member who is unable to attend) it is possible to set up a stationary video camera on a windowsill to video the service. It is also possible to video the rehearsal, though this should not interfere with the practical issues which need to be addressed at that time. If families wish to do so, photographs can be taken with the Bar-/Bat-mitzvah, Rabbi, ark, scroll family members etc in the synagogue after kiddush.

Q: Can we make a donation to mark the occasion?

A: Many families decide to mark the occasion by making a charitable donation, for example by adding an inscribed leaf to our beautiful Tree of Life (minimum donation £50) or through the Mazon scheme, where a percentage of the amount spent on the bar-/bat-mitzvah celebration is donated to help those less fortunate. There are also opportunities to 'twin' your bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony with families in Eastern Europe of Israel. Please ask the rabbi if you are interested in any of these schemes.

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The Party

Q: You haven't mentioned the party&ldots;

A: The most important aspect of becoming bar- or bat-mitzvah is marking a milestone in Jewish life, by participating in the service in front of family and friends, the community and God. Standing on the bimah and confidently carrying out the rituals and reading the ancient text of Torah as the focus of the community is a unique and powerful opportunity for growth. Celebrating and being congratulated by all those who witnessed it at the kiddush afterwards is a very important aspect of this.

Clearly the reception which follows, whether it be at home or at a hotel or other venue, has great importance for the family - as do the presents. It is hoped that parents will ensure that the correct emphasis is placed upon the religious service and that the subsequent celebration is not over-elaborate or indulgent.

If there is a reception with a meal, it is appropriate to say grace (ha-motzi) before the meal with a challah or bread rolls and to conclude it with grace after meals (Birkat ha-Mazon). Please speak to the Rabbi about the version of Birkat ha-Mazon you propose to use: the synagogue does have booklets and leaflets which can be made available. Please do not order Grace booklets from other Jewish organisations as they are much longer and contain reference to sacrifice and other matters contrary to Liberal Jewish belief.

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After it's Over

Q: What comes after the bar-/bat-mitzvah ceremony?

A: In older times, this ceremony was regarded as the point when Jewish education and commitment began in earnest. Sadly, it is now often the point at which a young person leaves Judaism, perhaps to return only when they contemplate marriage.

The founders of Liberal Judaism decided that a ceremony of confirmation, known as Kabbalat Torah (receiving the Torah) should be the rite of passage which concluded a child's education and should be a group ceremony taking place usually in the child's 16th year. This ceremony replaced bar-mitzvah in the first 50 years or so of Liberal Judaism, though bar-mitzvah, along with its twin sister, bat-mitzvah, returned and its effect has been to diminish the significance of Kabbalat Torah (known as KT).

It is hoped that a young person who has celebrated becoming bar- or bat-mitzvah will want to continue their Jewish education and a KT course is available to teenagers, with a ceremony to complete the programme. More details are available from the rabbi, who is keen to promote this important educational element of Liberal Judaism at TLSE. We also strongly encourage participation in the many events organised by LJY-Netzer (Liberal Judaism's youth movement). Although it's not for everyone (and would soon leave us with more teachers than pupils if it were!), a number of our post bar- and bat-mitzvah students work as assistants in our Sunday Religion School and go on to become teachers.

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Contact Us

Q: Whom should I talk to if I have any questions or concerns?

A: If you are concerned about any aspect of the bar-/bat-mitzvah process, you should telephone the synagogue and arrange an appointment with the Rabbi or Chairperson of the congregation. It is not normally very effective to approach someone just before or after a service!

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