• Learn to chant Torah with Cantor Pincus

Temple Beth-El, Hillsborough, New Jersey
BMR Status Report to the Congregation, 6/9/14

Since August 2012, Temple Beth-El has been involved in the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution, which I'll describe a little more in a moment. However, I'd like to begin by noting that our work with the BMR, concurrent with the work of our Brit K'hillah Task Force and other significant efforts at the temple, is already bringing about a shift in the way we as a temple community view community in general, and how we forge and develop relationships with one another through study, worship, and tikkun olam. In other words, everything we're doing is informing everything else we're doing, in a thoughtful and intentional manner. And it's good!

For those of you who may not be familiar with the B'nai Mitzvah Revolution, here are a few details. Since August 2012, Temple Beth-El has participated as a pilot congregation in the BMR, a joint project of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. We are one of 12 pilot congregations nationwide that have been tasked with asking questions about the many rituals related to bar and bat mitzvah, and with experimenting in various ways, both big and small, to enhance the practice and experience of bar and bat mitzvah at Temple Beth-El.

I'd like to review a few key background points. First, it's important to understand that our decision to apply in July 2012 to be a pilot congregation was more about dreams than dissatisfaction. Nothing was or is "broken" with bar and bat mitzvah at Temple Beth-El. In fact, our desire to participate in the BMR was a natural outgrowth of several significant areas of interest and activity:

  1. strong Religious School and b'nai mitzvah programs that provide solid foundations for our teens;
  2. ongoing interest in the spiritual growth and development of individual temple members and the community as a whole;
  3. a long and proud temple history of vision, considered innovation, and dynamic growth; and
  4. concerns about the absence of a ritual continuum for most of our teens post-bar/bat mitzvah. Regarding this last point, it's important to understand that despite the unusually high rate of retention in our education programs of 75-80 percent (the inverse of the approximately 80 percent drop-out rate post-b'nai mitzvah nationwide), our teens remain connected to the temple primarily through education and youth programming, and not, for the most part, through active engagement in ritual.

This perception of a lack of an ongoing ritual connection for most of our youth emerged from discussions among senior staff and lay leaders in the context of strengthening and enriching structures and programs that were already in place. Again, I want to emphasize that though we were looking for ways to involve our youth differently, we were not trying to fix something that wasn't working. And here's the critical point: since our youth are part of a larger community, that
meant involving the community as a whole in our BMR efforts, with an eye toward multigenerational participation.

Last April, 113 members of all ages gathered at four Congregational Visioning Workshops to respond to questions about the institution of bar and bat mitzvah and about bar/bat mitzvah at Temple Beth-El. Overwhelmingly, the feedback from the workshops was that there is a strong desire among our members for more community involvement in b'nai mitzvah services, with less focus on what we might call the "performance aspect" of the bar/bat mitzvah ritual.

And so, the BMR Core Team and our lay leaders began working last summer and have continued throughout this year (with the wise counsel at regular intervals from the national BMR staff) to envision and create new, experimental ways to bring the entire temple family together in worship, celebration, and study. Starting with Sukkot in October through to Shavuot last week, all the generations have gathered for — are you ready? —

  • a brand-new Erev Sukkot celebration in our expanded sukkah that reinvigorated our festival observance;
  • a re-energized Ceremony of Consecration for our youngest students;
  • a moving new ceremony for rising sixth graders called Kabbalat Torah, at which they received their b'nai mitzvah Torah portions, as well as blessings from our older students and the clergy;
  • an enhanced Tu BiSh'vat celebration with a camp-style service, community luncheon, and activity stations;
  • two lively and informative Learners' Minyans, one in the fall and one in the spring;
  • a moving and spiritual Shabbat for the Soul on a Friday night and Shabbat morning in November, including worship and workshops;
  • increasingly vibrant and well-attended Shabbat morning minyan services, with several congregants delivering "Two Minutes of Torah" at each service, plus Torah chanters of all ages, including many of our teens;
  • a dynamic new celebration of Shavuot last Tuesday, with a re-arrangement of the physical space, music, drama, personal stories, and significant learning about the meaning and customs of this ancient holiday;
  • incorporating the always-moving Ceremony of Confirmation of our 10th graders into our always-lively Friday night Family Shabbat Service, just this past week, with the largest turnout we've ever seen from congregants who were not family members of the Confirmands;
  • and a new Shabbat B'Shir, a Friday night service with the joyful music of our wonderful Tefilah Band, now regularly once a month.

It has been a busy year!

All these programs were multi-generational and interactive, designed as a response to the desire expressed by last year's BMR Visioning Workshop participants for more community involvement in the ritual life of the synagogue.

So where do we go from here?

We're reflecting on what we have learned from our many different experiments to see what might be applied to our Shabbat morning worship and celebration of bar and bat mitzvah. Whatever is decided specifically, in general everything we've done this year has reinforced our sense from the workshop data that what we all ultimately would like to see is for our members of all ages and life stages to join together in meaningful and joyful worship on holidays and festivals, and especially on Shabbat morning.

Before I close, I'd like to offer heartfelt thanks to our Core Team (Rabbi Gluck, Cantor Pincus, Lisa Friedman, Marcy Rosenfeld, and Marci Taylor) for their ongoing commitment of time and energy to this effort, and for their extraordinary thoughtfulness. As a pilot congregation, we extend our gratitude and thanks to the entire national BMR team, especially Prof. Isa Aron of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, who came up with the idea of the BMR in the first place, and Diane Tickton Schuster, our wise and devoted research advisor, from whom I have learned so much and who is such a pleasure to work with. A huge shout-out to our temple member Julie Hirsch, who from the beginning expressed an interest in data collection and analysis, and was instrumental in recently making a shiddach for us with a former colleague, now working in California, who performed our data analysis and generated a report for us. We thank Jon Frey, of Taco Bell and Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, for his generosity of time and spirit (and use of advanced software we couldn't even dream of). To all of them and the many members of Temple Beth-El who have been involved or would like to be involved in our B'nai Mitzvah Revolution work, we thank you.

Respectfully submitted,
Sarah Gluck, TBE BMR Core Team Documenter
Rabbi Arnie Gluck
Cantor Emily Pincus
Lisa Friedman
Marcy Rosenfeld
Marci Taylor

Research Summary