“Before anything else,” Alexander Graham Bell once said, “preparation is the key to success.”
These sage words of advice imparted by one of history’s most significant communication innovators certainly hold true when it comes to one of the most important transitions in the life of a young man or woman.
Despite the variety of themes, styles, denominational observation and season, one factor that unites all b’nai mitzvahs is the undeniable fact that, indeed, preparation is the key to success.
“My job is to make sure of two things,” said Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s director of education, Brad Cohen. “The kids going through our education program are coming up with a solid base of understanding of prayers, and I do a lot of the coordinating of the different programs that we do.”
Cohen, who has maintained his role at BHC for the past six-and-a-half years, elaborated that the foundation of preparation for b’nai mitzvahs via his organization is that “every kid is treated as an individual,” each student is appropriately consulted — along with his or her parents — and a specialized, rigorous program is established to ensure success.
According to Cohen, the protocol involves giving the student and his or her family a date of the b’nai mitzvah typically about two years in advance. The date-setting is celebrated over a special Shabbat lunch. This normally occurs around fifth or sixth grade (though, of course, Cohen said the date is namely based on a student’s birth date more than anything else).
The cantor will then speak with the student, figure out where he or she is at with his or her educational background, and then a system for preparation is individualized accordingly.
Cohen said that from here, the student will meet with the cantor for tutoring once a week and with BHC’s rabbi three or four times during the final six months of the process.
Largely in aid of boosting the student’s confidence, Cohen revealed that students are normally taken on a special retreat with their families — traditionally around the end of sixth grade — in which discussions arise with both students and families/parents alike about guidance and what is to come in the future.
“This helps to let them know they have the support not only of the professionals, but of their peers as well,” Cohen said, adding that the trip is more about the “journey” the students take than merely the terra firma day itself.
About a year-and-a-half ago, a special student was brought in who, Cohen said, is autistic.
Cohen worked closely with the student during his 18-month preparation process and found that he had to find unique strategies to work with a student with singular needs. The student’s mercurial mood was a challenge, for example.
“It was really about sitting down with his parents, learning about him,” Cohen said, noting that he learned that intermittent tutoring worked best (working for 10 minutes, then taking a break, then working again for 10 minutes).
Cohen also discovered that the student loved the BHC building itself and that if they could move around and study standing over by a book case for a while, for example, then walk over to another part of the facility, that allowed for better opportunities for success in studying as well.
“It was a really special thing,” Cohen said of the student’s bar mitzvah. “It was really amazing how we’re able to do that for individuals.”
“It all depends on the individual child,” agreed Debby Hellman, who has been Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s b’nai mitzvah coordinator for the past 20 years. “Some kids are easy, and some need more attention.
“What’s most exciting is when we see a student who comes in at the beginning of the process and is unsure of his or her capabilities and grows into the role over the next few months.”
Hellman said a lot of kids who come in are not very secure in their ability and might lack confidence. Over time, she continued, through the learning process at Chizuk Amuno, “they become confident, and they understand they’re mature enough to handle the responsibilities of Judaism.”
Believing then that preparation for the b’nai mitzvah is as much about maturity as it is “learning to chant from the bimah,” Hellman said the most impressive aspect of the process for her is seeing the student over time “choose a new sense of who they are. … It becomes a window to their identity. That’s what’s most rewarding.”
The space chosen for the ceremony and reception is also an integral component of the individualized preparatory process, Rabbi Etan Mintz of B’Nai Israel said, pointing to his own 140-year-old sanctuary in downtown Baltimore, renovated a year ago.
“It definitely has a different kind of feel to a typical congregation,” Mintz said about his historic space, which is available for rental. “I believe in the idea of this being a sacred time in a young person’s life, so to be able to be in a sacred space is something that could give somebody chills. We can create a sense of holiness in choosing how we choreograph and focus on a ceremony that we put together, which of course has so much to do with time, space and being surrounded by family.”
“For me, the most exciting thing is seeing from the family’s perspective the change that comes about,” Hellman concluded. “That [the student] understands they’re at a different level, different status in the community. That’s a transformative thing. That’s where real growth comes in.”