Rabbi Kenneth Brander, the David Mitzner dean at Yeshiva University explains, “The whole idea behind a bar and bat mitzvah is not about a fancy party, but about using this moment as an occasion for parents to help their child realize that each one of us can have our own unique relationship with God.”
While material gifts are often fun and fabulous, there is a trend of focusing too much on the individual and not on the spirit of the event that celebrates entering into adulthood and a greater community.
“Society too often focuses on the ‘I’ — it’s the iPad, iPod, iPhone,” Brander says. “Even the game Wii is spelled with two I’s. Today we design our own music, our own coffee, everything. A bar or bat mitzvah young person needs to realize life is about more than ‘I.’ There is our Jewish community and larger society and by giving we grow and feel a sense of purpose.”
Myra Schindler, program director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has worked directly with kids for 35 years, agrees.
“Though difficult in today’s world, kids like physical contact; a pat on the back, handshake, hug or kiss on the cheek, if appropriate,” she says. “They also want an opportunity to be heard. We need to ask about things they are interested in, pay attention, and then ask about those things again when you meet up the next time.”
Here are a few ideas for meaningful gifts. They are just some of the ways you can allow your bar or bat mitzvah to engage with the depth of the experience.
Take a trip to Israel
One of the most powerful connections to Judaism comes from spending time in Israel. It is the ultimate way to connect with your roots and watch history come alive. There are also a plethora of trips to choose from.
Former archaeologist Danny Herman, (dannythedigger.com) is known for his private tours, which focus on ancient Jewish heritage sites. He even personally participated in some of the excavations. Herman explained “I also conducts various ‘extreme’ activities, such as live shooting and Segway tours, but all in all aim to develop affiliations with the Jewish people and the land of Israel.”
A tour that mixes action and education might be perfect to suit the varying needs and interests of a family.
If you are willing to wait a few years for the gift of Israel, one of the most meaningful trips is the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. AMHSI is a nonprofit, study abroad program in Israel for high school students. For eight weeks, students learn by traveling to the actual site where history took place. Israel itself becomes the classroom.
While students would have to wait a few years to participate in this program, it has received rave reviews. A recent participant, 16-year-old Talya Ehrenstein explains, “This experience was a great way for me to learn more about my Jewish roots and make many new friends, as well as see historical sights and have a lot of fun along the way. It changed my view of Judaism and makes me want to go back!”
Every bar or bat mitzvah has different interests, and there are many areas of need in the world. Discuss locales across the world in which your child may have a particular interest, and then find a program where you can volunteer together as well as plan some fun activities on the side. Many programs offer the opportunity to spend time building homes or schools, while also touring the country and getting to know a new culture.
Fixing the world can be completed in myriad ways. Rabbi Brander explains: “Each child is different and through dialogue with them we will find a special way that the year or months leading up to the b'nai mitzvah can be a time in which our b'nai mitzvah child can begin to realize their potential in living a spiritual and meaningful life — a life of connection.”
Donating to an organization does not have to be a mere money event — it can be an interactive learning and growing experience of understanding the power of giving and its positive effects.
Many organizations have “mitzvah projects.” The American Friends of Magen David Adom, for example, has a program called the “Red Bag of Courage.” The Red Bag is a replica of the paramedic’s kit which is used by all MDA volunteer “first responders” when racing to the scene of a medical emergency.
Participants raise $1,000, which is the price of a fully outfitted first responder’s red bag filled with emergency equipment that is used to save lives in Israel. The organization thanks the participants by sending them their own monogrammed red bag.
We teach our children, “If you have saved a life you have saved the world.” So why not start by saving lives in Israel?
To many young adults, a celebratory party is an important part of the occasion. A way to spread the joy is to ask for gifts for others. Birthday Angels Birthday Party Project is a nonprofit organization that provides underprivileged children in Israel with their own birthday party (birthday-angels.org). Only $36 will buy the party kit necessary to celebrate the child’s birthday.
Director Ruthie Luttenberg explains, “A $36 donation puts a million dollar smile on the face of a child. There are not a lot of charities that make your donations go as far as this one. Our Circle of Giving is designed to make a far-reaching difference in the lives of literally thousands of children at a tiny cost. Because we mass produce our party kits, recruit volunteers to give the party, we bypass the most expensive costs entailed in throwing a party.”
Celebrate their Interests
The interests of children are as varied as those of adults. Focus on their strengths and introduce them to a new skill. If a child is artistic, buy them a camera, but also enroll them in a class on how to use the camera in different ways.
If a child is interested in sports, find a class, a coach or a role model in the field, and go together to hear them speak or watch them play. Schools such as the Lenny Krayzelburg Swim Academy, which is located on both coasts, has many classes for kids. At just about every ice rink in the country there are “learn to skate” programs. It’s just a matter of Googling your child’s interests and finding a location near you.
Give the gift of adventure experiences like flying in a wind tunnel, swimming with dolphins, or learning to surf, figure skate or swim. Even money can be an interactive gift if you teach your child the art of wise investment. Find a stock, and watch the investment grow and fall. Discuss why. All of these experiences are fun and will gift the skills and education that will last a lifetime.
New skill sets build self-esteem and self-confidence, and when parents, family, and friends actually spend time with a young adult to foster their talents and creativity, it makes a world of difference.
Rabbi Brander explains, “It’s not about the gifts, it is about creating a legacy — which is the greatest gift a parent can give — a legacy of fulfillment and empowerment. Long after they are on their own and we are no longer physically around to guide them this legacy beginning with the b'nai mitzvah will help our children navigate the tumultuous times in their lives.”
(Masada Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.)