How can I help my child get ready for his Bar Mitzvah?

Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are the traditional coming-of-age ceremonies for thirteen-year-old Jewish boys and girls. The ceremony is the culmination of years of general study plus an intensive six months of tutoring and preparation. The Bar Mitzvah itself is a moving and spiritually fulfilling event. As the child reads and interprets his Torah portion, he offers wisdom and insight to his listeners. The periods before and after the Bar Mitzvah are exciting, but they can sometimes be hectic or stressful.

As family members look forward to the ceremony, they may have ambivalent feelings. Twelve-year-olds wonder how they’ll do: “What if I make a mistake?” “Will my speech be all right?” The hours spent on Hebrew and Bar Mitzvah preparation can cause considerable pressure: “I’ll never be ready!” “All I do is homework and my Torah portion!”

Parents feel proud and sentimental as their child prepares to take on the responsibilities of a Jewish adult; however, preparations for the coming ceremony can put a strain on family life. Parents have to support their child as he learns and practices, and help him focus on the spiritual meaning of the event. They also have to take care of the practical arrangements, including scheduling lessons, driving, discussing the service, working with the rabbi and cantor, and reserving the sanctuary. If a party is planned, they have to handle other details, too: invitations, food, entertainment, decorations, and clothes. These responsibilities, added to everyday routines, leave many parents feeling stressed.

Siblings, too, can be affected by the Bar Mitzvah. A younger child may be jealous: “It’s not fair! I want my Bat Mitzvah when Jessie has hers.” An older child who’s already had a Bar Mitzvah may feel neglected as attention shifts to his sibling.

As you and your child approach the Bar Mitzvah, you can decrease stress by concentrating on the religious nature of the occasion, rather than the preparations or the party. Talk about Judaism and your child’s connection to past generations. Discuss Jewish history, holidays, and customs, the Holocaust, and the beliefs and history of other religions. Also emphasize the need to help others. Many families make community service and charitable donations an important part of the Bar Mitzvah period.

Get involved with your child’s studies. Your interest, help, and support will make it easier for him to learn his Torah portion and prayers and write his speech. Involve him in planning the service if the rabbi allows some flexibility. Your child may be able to choose prayers, recite a poem, or pick out appropriate music.

As you plan your party, let your choices reflect your family’s style, budget, and values. You may have to resist pressure from relatives who want you to celebrate as they would, and you may also have to resist internal pressure to “keep up” with friends and acquaintances.

Your child will be feeling social pressures of his own: “I want kids to like my party.” “Why can’t we have the same things Aaron had?” If he feels in competition with others, help him focus on the meaning of the occasion and the honor of having friends and family with him. Whatever your celebration is like, he, as the center of attention, will enjoy it.

It’s appropriate to expect your other children to be happy for the Bar Mitzvah child. However, you may have to help them cope with jealousy. Encourage them to share their thoughts: “Brian’s been getting a lot of attention because his Bar Mitzvah’s coming up. What do you think of all this?” Spend extra time with them and involve them, if they wish, in some of the preparations.

Since Bar Mitzvahs are planned far in advance, there’s always a chance of unexpected events, even disappointments. Illness, bad weather, or family conflicts may interfere with plans. A relative may not come. One of your child’s classmates may have a Bar Mitzvah on the same day as your child’s. If you remain calm in the face of changes or disappointments, he will follow your lead.

After the Bar Mitzvah, you’ll feel happy and proud but also somewhat let down after so much anticipation. Your child’s feelings may be similar to yours, but he’ll quickly be distracted by school, social life, sports, and other interests.

Your final responsibility is to have him write thank-you notes. Make up a schedule: “I want you to write five cards every night.” Give him a set of sample notes to follow. Sit with him and offer suggestions on personalizing his cards.

If he received money as a gift, give him guidelines for handling it—have him save a large portion and keep a small amount at home to spend as he wishes. Some parents ask their child to give one of his presents to each of his siblings. Many parents ask their child to donate some gift money to charity. Being generous to those in need is a value that is particularly appropriate at the time of a Bar Mitzvah.

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