By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
“Does Judaism believe in heaven?”
“How long do I have to read my Torah Portion for?”
Becoming a Bar and Bat Mitzvah is a special moment in every young Jewish life. This momentous occasion marks an internal shift in becoming a more spiritually mature person. This shift, from child to teenager, brings with it many questions and challenges, as well as an incredible opportunity for growth, which is why I so enjoy teaching Bar & Bat Mitzvah classes.
Recently, my cousin in France who had just had his Bar Mitzvah expressed to me how he wasn’t particularly interested in continuing his involvement in Synagogue. Why? Even though he had learned his Torah portion well, he hadn’t had a stimulating and fun experience.
Yet Judaism is meant to be enjoyable, full of life and spirit, stimulating to the mind and the heart. The B’nai Mitzvah is not only a milestone and culmination of efforts, but the beginning of one’s exciting Jewish journey.
There is an amazing potential that only youth possess, which mustn’t be squandered. The Bar & Bat Mitzvah year is a powerful time to begin to access this potential. Rabbi Simon Jacobson, in his book Toward a Meaningful Life, writes:
A young person is like fire. With direction and guidance, he or she can change the very shape of the world. Without direction, the fires of youth are wasted at best, while at worst, they can become a dangerous, destructive force. To lead a meaningful life means harnessing the fires of youth; but first we must understand the purpose of youth itself.
The period of adolescence is nestled between childhood and adulthood. Teenagers are no longer content to play like children but don’t yet have the knowledge and experience to be fully engaged in adult pursuits. Youth is one of the most precious periods of a person’s life, and yet one of the most difficult.
What young people need and are searching for is a higher purpose. SAT scores, grades, sports, and socializing are the most promoted things in today’s society. But to satisfy the needs of our teenagers we must first recognize that their restlessness and hunger for meaning is not material but spiritual in nature, and that only spirituality can feed spiritual hunger. Their lives include a higher purpose, where their youthful energy for good will be expressed.
The fire of youth must be harnessed not only to build careers, but to build young adults who understand what really matters in life, with true care for their communities. It is our responsibility as adults and teachers to provide our young people with a spiritual guide to life, consisting of the Torah’s instructions on how to best lead a meaningful life.
If there’s one idea I can impart to my students, it’s that their B’nai Mitzvah process is not a one-time event, but the beginning of a fantastic lifelong journey. As our children grow into teenagers and young adults, we must stoke the fires of their souls and inspire their self-expression in meaningful ways. These are the future Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Daniel Bortz is the director of JTEEN of San Diego. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit jteensd.org.