The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution–or BMR–couldn’t be happening at a better time.
It seems as if lately, our social media feeds are filled with stories of families struggling to figure out how to acknowledge this ancient ritual, while also making it relevant in 2015.
In response, Rabbi Brad Solmsen, Director of Youth Engagement at the URJ and his BMR co-director Professor Isa Aron of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, are working with congregations to find learning opportunities for students who will see their Jewish journey take-off at the b’nai mitzvah point, not end there. (The BMR is a joint project of the URJ’s Campaign for Youth Engagement and HUC-JIR’s Rhea Hirsch School of Education and its Experiment in Congregational Education.)
“We are looking for systemic change,” said Solmsen. “We want to make the rite more meaningful and more community-oriented,” he said, “without diminishing the child’s personal sense of accomplishment.”
In some cities, the rate of teen drop out after the b’nei mitzvah event is as high as 75 percent. The event itself becomes the focus of a religious school’s educational plan which subsequently, causes b’nai mitzvah to be seen not as a beginning, but rather as the end of involvement for many Jewish teens.
Solmsen understands the crucial nature of this challenge—to retain Jewish teens within Jewish life—because of the spiritual journey that he, himself, traveled.
Solmsen, married and a father, grew up in New York City on its Upper East Side. His family were members of a local synagogue and for eight summers, he attended an all-boys camp located in Maine. When that camp closed, Solmsen was 15 years old. The following summer, when his local syngagogue sponsored a National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) trip to Israel, Solmsen went. And he credits those six weeks in Israel, as a 16-year-old kid, for changing his entire Jewish outlook.
“I had never experienced a Shabbat in my life,” Solmsen shared, “the way you do when you know it’s Shabbat. The notion that Judaism could impact every part of yourself and every part of your life was foreign to me. And the notion of a kibbutz of people intentionally living together and being Jewish together on a high level made a huge impression on me.”
Solmsen, who was ordained at the Hebrew Union College –Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and received a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Davidson School, has made a career of being involved with Jewish teens and college students, working to help them see what he saw during that NFTY trip and beyond. For him, that “beyond” would include living and learning in Israel for four years.
“I knew very early that I wanted to work with teens and build community with them,” he said. “When I decided to go to rabbinical school, I saw it as an opportunity for building community. I’m a facilitator of teen learning and teen community building. I love working with teens and working with the adults who work with teens. I believe that the communities that have invested in young people are stronger communities. I’ve loved working with teens because of the powerful experiences I had as a teen. I love the questions they are asking, and I love how they are becoming independent and exploring and challenging us.”
He gives an example of an 11-year-old religious school student who was also a serious dancer. The student didn’t see any way of connecting dance to Judaism until she was introduced to an adult synagogue member, an experienced dancer. The student and adult formed a friendship based on their love of dance.
“All of a sudden this student is asking me all of these questions about modern dance in Israel,” said Solmsen. “What about dancing on Shabbat? So she is thinking not just about her bat mitzvah, but about how to connect dance to her life as a Jew.”
Solmsen also talked about a New Jersey congregation where both a traditional and alternative path to b’nai mitzvah are offered. At the synagogue, the b’nai mitzvah student presents a proposal to a committee of lay people.
“They can do anything they want for their bar mitzvah,” said Solmsen. “They might have a child who loves classical music or poetry, and that child wants to commit that area to the b’nai mitzvah. This family meets with an advisor and crafts a proposal to a committee. They and the committee then come up with a plan involving a special focus. Instead of cookie cutter, each family would craft their own bar or bat mitzvah learning process. You need to have a strategy and you need serious buy-in from the child, the family and the synagogue.”
“A congregation that wants to make change needs to be ready,” he continued. “We’re honing in on what that means. It’s not as simple as saying ‘sign up for this.’ We need more doors open to corridors that are deeply meaningful and engaging.”
“We want to start with the family who comes to the rabbi and says ‘here’s who my child is,’” Solmsen added. “Then a program is crafted according to who the child is. The core of Judaism is not about memorizing a Torah portion.”
“I think we have great opportunities to engage teens in Jewish life,” said Solmsen.
“Look, it’s an accident that I am where I am, because I checked out and if it weren’t for a trip to Israel, I wouldn’t be involved,” Solmsen asserted. “We have a huge opportunity in front of us. We started BMR as an opportunity to bridge the significant disconnect between what Jewish professionals want a b’nai mitzvah to be and what parents and young people want it to be. We have to address that disconnect. I think if you were to start to interview children and families after they walk off the bima, you’d hear that everyone had a meaningful experience and the parents and child were proud. If you asked the question ‘what’s next,’ too many would say, ‘I’m done.’ My dream is to change the whole experience so that when we ask ‘what’s next?’ the answer will be ‘I want more.’”
“There are children, grownups, everywhere
That would love to hear your voices
Singing for our health to be bright
So that we can join together...and paint our world with healing and hope”
-From the original song, Painting Our World with Healing Hope, by Karina and Debora Zilberman
“Families that share stories about parents and grandparents, about triumphs and failures, provide powerful models for children. Children understand who they are in the world not only through their individual experience, but through the filters of family stories that provide a sense of identity through historical time...Through sharing the past, families recreate themselves in the present, and project themselves into the future.”
—“Do You Know…” The power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being
Read more about Dr. Marshall Duke and his work, here.
“There are people out there who are educating their hearts as we speak. They’re getting on with the work, they’re loving their kids, they’re loving their students, they’re loving their communities. We must retrain our vision toward those people—we must develop eyes to see and ears to hear where that love is already happening—that is worth our energy and our care and our time, to tend that love, to show that love ourselves.”
—Krista Tippett, Founder and CEO, The On Being Project
“There are just two outcomes that really matter: First, that students feel Judaism is the fertile ground in which they get nurtured to grow, and second, that they find Judaism joyful.” Rabbi Joy Levitt, Executive Director, JCC Manhattan
"Civil discourse requires us to listen generously and to act as though—and to really believe—we could be open to persuasion. We each may think: 'I did not cause this situation, I am not to blame.' Yet we each have the capacity to help society turn the corner, if we honestly ask what went wrong and what we can do about it."
- Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University and Joseph William Singer, Bussey Professor of Law, Harvard University
The Wow Metric of Success: Jewish Life in Bloom on the Farm: Spring has arrived, and the Jewish community is busy planting with purpose. In Vaughan, Ontario, the yellow coltsfoot and purple-blue scilla are just starting to flower at the Kavanah Garden, a half acre community garden that’s part of Shoresh, the Canadian-based Jewish environmental organization that includes the Kavanah Garden and Bela Farm. Last Sunday, on “Yom Manual Labor” volunteers gathered to turn the soil, plant seeds, paint outdoor tables and participate in construction projects with the Shoresh team, preparing the garden for growing season.
“Our Jewish community is only as strong as its ability to include all members in the fabric of Jewish life. Doing so helps each of us recognize the unique strengths we all bring to the Jewish community, and that community cannot possibly be complete until we actively and intentionally welcome each other.”
-Meredith Englander Polsky, 2017 Covenant Award Recipient, Director of Institutes and Training, Matan, and Developmental Support Coordinator, Temple Beth Ami Nursery School
“From all of my teachers, I have grown wise.” Psalms 119:99. Framing Jewish Education, a project of The Jewish Lens and supported by The Covenant Foundation, was created to engage teachers, students, and families in conversation about the value of Jewish education and to illustrate the power of great teaching and learning via a curriculum based on visual literacy and text.
“For me, study is a divine and daily imperative; I study a page of Talmud daily so that I am not only teaching. My teaching is constantly being fed by my learning.” —Erica Brown Associate Professor, George Washington School of Education and Human Development. Director, Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, 2009 Covenant Award Recipient
The Covenant Classroom means something different to every educator but common goals are to motivate, engage and be inclusive of all learners. In this volume, we’ve collected an array of Teachings on Inspiration and Motivation in all areas of Education.
#ThankATeacher It has been twenty-five years since The Covenant Foundation first opened its doors, and we continue to be humbled by extraordinary Jewish educators from across North America and across the spectrum of Jewish life who have devoted their careers and considerable talents to the field of Jewish education. Now, in celebration of a quarter-century-old tradition of honoring Jewish education and educators, and to kick off a year of public engagement around great teaching, we’re proud to share The Covenant Foundation voices app with you: a new digital way to give and share your gratitude.
“What would it look like if we bet on Jewish early childhood education for the long-term, as our tradition instructs? The task might seem large, but the reward, we know, is great (Pirkei Avot 2:15).”
“Countless leaders have been inspired by the story of the Jewish people leaving bondage in Egypt – those whose names we know, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and those whose names we never will know, whose every-day acts of kindness and resistance fuel social change. This story, our story, has become a cornerstone of modern social justice work.”
—Abby Levine, Director of The Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
This is how I see a “Covenant Classroom”: a place where challenging topics are passionately discussed; a place where complex ancient texts are grappled with; a place in which self- esteem grows, and motivation to learn increases exponentially because of it. An environment in which each Jewish soul is given the confidence to continue the eternal search for meaning.”
—Dr. Sandra Ostrowicz Lilienthal, Curriculum Developer and Instructor at The Rose and Jack Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education of Broward County and 2015 Covenant Award Recipient
“When powerful, new approaches to learning are introduced through digital tools, meaningful disruptions occur along the way… When this happens, new approaches which previously seemed inaccessible, are suddenly within reach.”
—Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives, American Museum of Natural History
“The future of Jewish teen engagement can in fact be found in 3D printers, and in text-people, and in service, and outdoor education, and in anything that brings teens into contact with authentic learning experiences and passionate, caring, knowledgeable educators.”
—Charlie Schwartz, Senior Jewish Educator, Director, BIMA & Genesis, Brandeis High School Programs
Portal seems like a particularly apt metaphor for entry points into Jewish life and learning because ultimately we want those experiences to be deeply experiential and transformative. We also want them to be accessible. A portal has no toll; passage is free. At the same time, a portal is particularistic, not a generic entrance. It conveys a sense of magic, ritual, and power. Similarly, we want to convey that Jewish life is rich, layered, and meaningful beyond what is immediately apparent. We want the encounter with Jewish life to take you on a journey that is profound and surprising. And, given that each of us may enter through the same portal but have a completely different experience of what is on the other "side," the possibilities are endless.
— Judith Rosenbaum, Executive Director, The Jewish Women’s Archive
"We need a new kind of creativity in the classroom that’s going to reach Jewish kids… If a teacher is imaginative, he or she is going to connect to students’ hearts and souls.”
—Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, Board Member, The Covenant Foundation.
"There are four types of students... The sponge absorbs everything. The funnel brings in on one side lets it out the other. The strainer lets out the wine and retains the lees. The sieve lets out the flour dust and retains the fine flour." —Pirkei Avot 5:15
"There’s a misconception that a venture must depend on large grants from big donors. It makes more sense and it’s more sustainable to test out an idea, and see whether it has the opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives."
— Ariel Beery, founder, PresenTense
I think [creating new Jewish texts] is a really good description of what we’re trying to do. These days we’re increasingly creating products that are intended to be shared on the web. We’ve felt and continue to feel that this medium, and virtual communication as a whole, is being under-tapped for its possibilities for making art.
— Reflections from Sam Ball on the New Jewish Filmmaker Project