BMAP: Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah Planning, Logistical Emotional Intellectual Spiritual B Mitzvah! The Bar and Bat Mitzvah (R)evolution continues here

An emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually satisfying Bat or Bar Mitzvah can best emerge when you begin by creating a BMAP – a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Action Plan. This involves pausing with the likely stressful array of logistical decisions that are on your plate, and reclaiming the joy of this process by taking some time to focus on building a healthy planning team and considering the feelings and needs of each member of your team.

If you are parent, the BMAP process will transform you from a taskmaster into a team member; if you are an adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah student the BMAP will awaken more spiritual possibilities than you might ever have imagined; if you are an adolescent student, the BMAP will empower you in numerous healthy ways.

Step One. Organize a Bar/Bat Mitzvah Planning Team.

* For a youth B-Mitzvah this includes the B-Mitzvah student and significant others who will be deeply involved in the B-mitzvah planning process, such parent(s), an older sibling, perhaps a tutor, mentor, grandparent or other close relative.

* For an adult B-Mitzvah, this can be a team of friends and some family of preference.

Step Two. Convene the first of your regular planning team meetings.

Step Three. Ask each person on the planning team to sit together and quietly write out a personal list of how s/he:

a) Feels about the Bar or Bat Mitzvah process now and also,

b) What emotions does s/he expect and hope to experience along the way to and on the day of the ritual?

Each try to come up with about ten, a minyan of emotions. A helpful approach is to inquire within yourself, “how am I feeling about this bar or bat mitzvah thing?” Honor each feeling that arises within. Anxious – what about? And, hmm, excited – what about? Hoping to feel closer to family – yes, that’s also true. Underneath each emotion will be more emotions, let every kind of feeling that you truly feel about the B-Mitzvah situation rise up and be written down.

Step Four. Starting with the B-Mitzvah initiate, each shares his/her emotion lists with the whole team. No disputing, ridiculing or debating, or acting defensive about someone else’s emotional reality is ever appropriate – just listen with curiosity and respect.

Step Five. Each person picks one emotion from her list for the team to brainstorm achievable objectives that could support best support that emotion.

Example: Dani’s Bat Mitzvah is in 18 months, a good time to start the BMAP process. Her emotion list includes: Closeness, anxious, hopeful, proud, pretty, creative, and bored. She wants to start with “closeness.” Hearing this, her mom says, “We know you want a lot of space now, that’s right on schedule for your age. We get it.”

Unhelpful mom response. Take Two. Try this: “What do you mean by closeness?”

Dani’s answer: “I’m wishing to get to know some of the out-of-town relatives better – we all live so far apart, I wish I had a close aunt like my best friend Jillian does, or cousins nearby like Bennet has. But I notice that at most bat mitzvah parties, the band is way too loud for people to be able to talk and get to know each other. So I’m also afraid this great opportunity is going to get lost.”

Now, each person at the team meeting can suggest an attainable objective to support Dani’s emotional goal and concern in a way that will be meaningful to her. No one is to argue with any suggestions – everything is fair game right now, just have someone be the Plan Keeper who records all the ideas equally. Choosing among them will come much later in this process

Brian, Dani’s dad says: “Hmm. I bet you don’t even know what many of the relatives look like. How about we ask in the invitation for them to send us a photo by email and something about their interests, talents and current way of life? Then you might better be able to pick out whom to start getting to know better first.”

Ken, Dani’s big brother says: “The way we were planning the party, there’s no way you could even hear someone over the band. How about we have some major pauses in the DJ scene and fill them with interactive games to help people meet each other? My youth group advisor is great at that, he could be involved.”

Pam, Dani’s mom says:

“I’d love you to know your Aunt Maxie’s life story. She was a nurse in Vietnam during the war who came back and went back to college to learn mediation skills. And she’s a poet/songwriter! I wonder, could we could plan to have people arrive a day early? Or should we book a retreat center and make a family weekend for your bat mitzvah? Or maybe there will be some in the family you’d like to visit and get to know better over your spring break?”

Tzipora is Dani’s tutor. Her family found her through a new kind of Jewish professional training program that is springing up around the country. Using guidance techniques called “Spiritual Direction,” these mentors are trained in helping a person cultivate a healthy Jewish spiritual life. Since Dani has the amazing Israeli-developed Trope Trainer CD [find via a search engine, it’s readily available] that lets her self-teach herself to chant the Torah and Haftorah portion, the family was interested in finding a creative, dynamic meaning-making mentor, who could help Dani work on conscious personhood and conscious Jewish peoplehood.

Tzipora’s guidance was:

“Your Torah portion is about Dinah, a young woman who was very adventurous. On her journey she gets into what seems to be her first important relationship, in fact the man she connects with wants to marry her, he and his brothers want to convert to the Jewish people and everything. But this was not welcomed by her family at all.”

“Dani,” continues Tzipora, “maybe you could make a list of special people in your life, or people you admire and want to know better, and set up appointments for them to help you understand how to prepare your Torah talk so that it will relate to your family and community. That’s what a leader does – find meaning in the portion that those present can really relate to and gain inspiration for living from what you teach. You could tell each person you meet with the story of Dinah and ask them a key question, something people could really relate to like: What did you learn that is important for me to know from your first significant relationship? Or, “Do you think Dinah’s family’s approach to her situation was fair or right? Or, “What would you do if this situation faced you today?””

“Or,” adds Janice, best friend of Dani’s mom, “On the afternoon of your bat mitzvah, you could have a family Torah study, where everyone gets a chance to say something about the story of Dinah. Or you could act the story of Dinah out as a dance composition Torah teaching that includes many of the ideas for different endings that your meetings with family and mentors might reveal.”

Dani’s rabbi was very excited when she learned about the family’s BMAP process and she volunteered an objective for the brainstorming list: “As Shabbat ends and the time for your seudah shel mitzvah, the “meal” for your guests, you could begin with the ritual called Havdallah. By the light of the braided Havdallah candle you could talk about how your life is braided with the lives of all the people in the room. Invite all your secular and religious schoolmates to step into the center and step out; that’s one strand. Then all of your cousins. Then all of your grandparents – you can also mention those relatives you feel close to who couldn’t be there or who have passed on, maybe share a special memory about your connection with them.

Don’t forget your tutors and teachers. How about those on the tennis team with you? Then your siblings and your parents. Straight from your heart look into their eyes and let them know how much they mean to you. If you like I can teach you the blessings over the wine, the spices and flame of the candle and a beautiful, simple melody that every one can join in singing together for this ritual.”

Dani, who loves to dance, adds an idea of her own:

“Mom, dad – could you organize an Israeli dance teacher to come regularly to teach at our B’nei Mitzvah class at synagogue? Maybe Ron who teaches at summer camp. Instead of just the kids doing our usual rock music thing and the adults watching us or talking in the hallway to get away from the noise, what if for part of the party everyone did some Jewish dancing? Not just the Hora, that gets so boring – people want to continue but they don’t know enough dances. If Ron or some cool Jewish dance teacher came to the celebration and even if only for 20 minutes taught the adults the new dances and my class joined in and helped the adults learn, then the whole family could dance together, with friends, neighbors and teachers – we could be a real tribe, doing our people’s dances. I’d love that.”

Dani’s Bubbe (Grandmother) speaks up: “Dani, I’m feeling sad that Zeyde is in the nursing home and his physical health and mind are not strong enough for him to be able to attend your bat mitzvah. What could we do to include him?”

Dani jumps up, “Bubbe, I know – I’ll go there and chant my Torah portion for him right there. And I could bring my class to do our dances for everyone on his floor too. How could I almost have forgotten to include Zeyde!”

Bubbe Rose has something to add, “Dani, do you remember how you used to play backgammon with Zeyde on the folding wooden board that he brought back from Israel? Would you like to inherit his backgammon set as one of your bat mitzvah presents? I know he would want you have it, and someday you can pass it on to one of your grandchildren as a precious family heirloom.

Look at Dani. Her eyes are shining as she hugs her Bubbe. Dani isn’t slumped back in a sullen state as sometimes happens with her lately.

Spirituality has entered the team – Dani is beng respectfully listened to; her emotions are being supported in very creative, caring ways. Wow. What an empowered, Jewishly connected young woman Dani is becoming. She’s thinking about others in the family, showing concern about her people and her culture, too. Her talent at dance helped her think up an idea to do hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the mitzvah of hosting guests, and in doing so empowering everyone’s experience to be more Jewishly joyful.

In fact, Dani’s team has come up with more great ideas than could even possibly be implemented – and they have only touched on one emotion so far!

Step Six. It is important for every person to get a turn to have his/her own emotions supported with brainstorming sessions like the one you just read. Why every person on the team? Isn’t Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah a life cycle event that is supposed to put a spotlight on the student’s desires and accomplishments?

From the point of view of spiritual health, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is an important transition time for conscious transitioning from focus on self to learning to be a team player who takes on responsibility to both care for and teach Torah to others. B-Mitzvah preparation, at its best, helps shift awareness as follows:

* From consumer consciousness (“what will they get/give/do for or spend on me”) to the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim, “welcoming guests,” (how can I, bar mitzvah student, and my team receive our guests and celebrate Shabbat and study our people’s Torah together in beautiful and meaningful ways?

* How can I, a first time teacher of Torah, get up before the inner circle of my life and help those present find meaning for living through the lens of my Torah portion?

* What is the prayer of the student’s heart each day leading up to the Bar/Bat Mitzvah? Who will help you/him/her find and articulate this and be able to find the intensely beautifully spirituality so often hidden within the traditional prayers and holy day cycle?

* Often congregations will provide tutoring for the important shamanic side of the bar/bat mitzvah process – learning how to read and chant the sacred stories and prayers of our people. Every tribe has a substantial physical trial for initiates to take on – killing a wild beast, climbing a mountain, etc. Our people’s physical trial is learning to chant and interpret the Torah. That’s good, and:

* Now is the time to find meaning-making mentors. Is there a Jewish artist, political activist, author, musician (etc.) that the student admires in the community? Call and make mentoring appointments, find out how the person you admire came to be who s/he is. With soaring rates of young adult depression and suicide, parents can’t afford to live in denial of the need for mentors to help a person learn healthfully how to handle not only success but also the inevitable mistakes, losses, trauma, budding sexuality and much more. Professional Jewish storytellers can also be good mentors to seek out, as are some Jewish studies majors in local colleges. One warning – no teaching behind closed doors, the newspapers are rife with clergy and teacher sexual improprieties; don’t temp fate.

* Does the initiate recognize the powerful potential of his/her own talents and know how to put these talents and skills into sacred service during the bar/bat mitzvah preparation process, ritual and celebration?

* Here’s a talent-put-to-good-use-example: A young student wondered if there was some way to connect his love of horses with his bar mitzvah. We used a Torah CD to do a key word search on horse and horses and discovered many fascinating references, from King David’s horse to those that died with the Egyptians as their chariots mired in the Red Sea. He and his mentors then found a principle for living in each of the horse stories in the Torah and this became a theme for his Bar Mitzvah invitation, teaching, and table arrangements. Soos is the Hebrew word for horse – so as a young man with a great sense of humor, he wrote a Dr. Soos story to teach his principles for his Torah talk and requested donations to a charity that works to prevent unnecessary product testing on animals in lieu of gifts from classmates.

As you can see, the creative possibilities for meaning-making and spirituality during the Bar/Bat Mitzvah process are wondrously infinite. To learn the next steps in the BMAP process and access some three hundred pages of ideas for a more meaningful and memorable B-Mitzvah process, you can obtain Rabbi Milgram’s family guidebook Make Your Own Bar/Bat Mitzvah: A Personal Guide to a Meaningful Rite of Passage (Jossey-Bass Publisher), available from all booksellers. Email the author at for information on Bar/Bat Mitzvah Family Enrichment programs and retreats, as well to learn about teleconference teacher training courses in new methods of bar/bat mitzvah preparation.

What can be done so that the student and family experience the transcendent joy of lived holiness happening?

Can you see how spiritually this process is not about supporting only the student’s goals and needs? Living a mitzvah-centered life is what a student is hopefully exploring and being mentored to achieve during this phase of life. Spiritual health is present at a B-Mitzvah where the student receives guests with the opposite of Western childhood consciousness - not with thoughts of “what did you bring me” but rather – “Are you comfortable? What do you need? Let me get you something to drink? Can I introduce you to someone to sit or speak with? I’m so happy to see you, or to meet you – I hope we can find time to really connect.”

Chanting sacred text in whatever quantity is not the goal of becoming Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, it is a symbolic act and also a developmental task – learning our people’s core shamanic practice: chanting and teaching our most sacred stories, nurturing the culture of “the tribe.” It used to be that the B-Mitzvah attainment ritual was one done by parents – they had undertaken to teach their child every facet of Jewish law and practice that is needed for daily life and there was a public blessing for them to say to celebrate their accomplishment.

The Jewish people are so good at evolving Judaism. For many earlier generations there was no such thing as adolescence. People were lucky to live into their thirties before the advent of antibiotics and sanitation, their parents were freeing such youth to indeed enter into the work place and more. Not so today, and the ritual has been changed and will

What the student is intended to do, is to step up to the plate on the day of the B-Mitzvah ritual and say not, “this is what the Torah portion means to me,” but rather, to have considered who will be present, what is going on in their lives, and to have found something in the Torah portion that can inspire those from the inner circle of their life.

B-Mitzvah includes the extraordinary step of becoming a first time teacher of Torah, of serving as high priest/spiritual leader to your community – carrying the sacred scroll, chanting our tribe’s traditional notes and words, wearing the sacred garments like tallit and kippah, learning how to receive and give blessings with those dear to you, and being mentored in how to find and express the prayer of your heart into the ear of the Cosmos.

In a spiritually powerful B-Mitzvah, the service does not center on the student. The student’s talents and skills and presence, in a healthy, cooperative setting, are skillfully woven into some of the service so that at the end people say: “What a wonderful Shabbat this is. What a meaningful service. What an interesting Torah teaching. This is a special day.” Then the B-Mitzvah initiate has succeeded.

Step 7: Some helpful resources:

#1: Technology is on our side. Some brilliant Israeli invented Trope Trainer, a chant-teaching CD that students love to use to learn their Torah portion because they can control their own pace of learning ever so easily on their computer and because it frees their tutors to do meaning-making mentoring. A version also exists that teaches Jewish prayer. 

#2: Instead of tutoring, think “meaning making mentors.” By this latter phrase I mean unique kinds of guides who can help the student reflect on his talents and skills and how they can be used in service of the B-Mitzvah process, ritual and celebration. Helping the student find not translations for prayers, but rather to discover how Jewish prayer and holidays can be very meaningful and appreciated parts of life, how to notice and experience the miracles and blessings in every day life, how to have a spiritual relationship to mistakes, to one’s body, and how a Jewish spiritual viewpoint can help a person understand life is a journey and one learns a lot from hard times and can navigate them back to a position of joyfulness. Let’s focus on what’s important!

#3: Finding meaning-making mentors. Seek out maggidim, professional Jewish story tellers in your community – they might be willing to work one-on-one and they for sure know how to find meaning in Torah. Or work two-on-one, studies show it’s more fun and effective for one mentor to work with two students, especially if they are adolescents. Or seek out the newest Jewish para-professionals – Jewish spiritual directors, these are folks trained in how to help you have a relationship with God and to understand life through a Jewish spiritual lens. Seek out Jewish artists as mentors – lots of us learn better with the other side of our brain. Think out of the box. Seek out Jewish studies majors at the local college. If you belong to a synagogue and the rabbi or cantor has an overwhelming student count to care for, don’t be afraid to supplement their time, they will be delighted at your initiative. They might even know the perfect person.

#4: Start a B-Mitzvah resource shelf at your synagogue and JCC and public libraries – fill it with Jewish music CD’s, books that will support the family and teacher’s process, and post examples of inspiring divrei Torah, party plans and decorations and more.

#5: Encourage meaningful gifts. This link will take you to a powerful story about how one mom did this in a way that helped her daughter forever.

#6: Fund the usual tutors in your community to take training in new methods of bar/bat mitzvah preparation. The author of this article offers such training in the form of monthly telephone classes and tutor/mentor supervision and retreats which can be attended long distance or brought as workshops for clergy and teachers in your community.

#7: Invite the staff at Reclaiming Judaism to bring our B Mitzvah Family Adventure and Enrichment programs to your community.

May you be blessed with one of the most meaningful, spiritual and memorable seasons of your life.