Bar Mitzvah Takes to the Web: A Response

On November 21 there appeared in the Style section of the New York Times an article entitled, “Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web” (it can be read here). It describes students who avoid Bar/Bat Mitzvah training in a synagogue setting by be tutored via Skype by rabbis who charge large amounts of money and, for additional fees, will officiate at a ceremony in a variety of settings. Many examples are given of sites to which people can go for tutoring. To quote the article: “At OneShul.org, ‘the world’s first community-run online synagogue,’ the founders imagine Web-only bar mitzvahs, with an e-minyan, or group of 10, gathered via Skype. And they have a citation from Maimonides to prove its O.K.”  And, according to one of the rabbis offering these services, “Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation. It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else they have in their lives.”

I brought this article to the members of our Confirmation class for their reaction.  At first, the students couldn’t see a problem with Internet tutoring and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. After all, they said, technology has changed many areas of our lives.  I then asked what value they saw in coming to religious school during the years preceding their own B’nai Mitzvah.  They spoke of what they had learned about their religion and faith.  They spoke of the relationships they had formed with each other.  And, they spoke of the relationship they felt with their rabbis and cantors and their synagogue.

Perhaps most important, our students spoke of how well-prepared they had been as they approached their “big day” and the pride they felt when they stood on the bima before family and friends, and how lasting those feels were.

My students and I were also able to have a conversation about what it means to be part of a community, and how the members of that community are responsible for maintaining it.  Those students who engage solely in on-line tutoring and become Bar/Bat Mitzvah in hotels and other non-synagogue settings are, said my students, missing out on being part of a community that will be theirs the rest of their lives. And, their families do not participate in the building and maintenance of the Jewish community and one of its most important institutions, the synagogue. There are exceptions, of course, such as families who live in isolated areas of the country and are able to provide training for their young people thanks to new technologies.  And, I am not suggesting that technology is a bad thing and that it does not play an important and growing role in religious education. But, if technology replaces the benefits that come from being part of a community, or simply provides a quick way to accomplish a goal, something important and lasting is lost. Our student understood that technology, such as Facebook, can enhance communication among people already in a community, but cannot replace the benefits of interacting with others face-to-face.

In reading this article, I could not help but feel that what was being described is yet another example of the lack of loyalty many Americans, including Jews, feel when it comes to institutions.  We buy what we need and then move on to other things.  And, there are always those ready to sell whatever is needed. Who needs a synagogue when we can buy a Jewish education and Bar/Bat Mitzvah?  Who needs an actual community when we can find a virtual one online?

To a great extent, the New York Times article was sensationalist and generalized from relatively few examples of those finding tutoring and ceremonies outside a synagogue setting. At the same time, the article points to some critical issues for those of us who care about the synagogue in particular and the future of the Jewish community in general.

I am hoping that there will be occasion to discuss this article in person.  In the meantime, read the article and then let me know what you think via this blog.  I look forward to hearing from you!

P.S To those who have children in our Confirmation class, you have every reason to be most proud them.  You have taught them well!

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3 Responses to “Bar Mitzvah Takes to the Web: A Response”

  1. Karen Says:

    Thank you for starting a dialogue about this article. We all hear the expression “it’s about the journey, not the destination” and that applies pretty well here in my opinion. Sometimes the bnei mitzvah party is presented as the culmination of study so it also becomes the end of study. It becomes what one is working toward and getting there is done as efficiently as possible in our busy lives. We are all racing to the finish instead of considering, changing, reflecting and studying Judaism as we are taught.
    It also occurred to me how it is more and more difficult to maintain a community such as the temple. We are having the same problem at our school’s PTA, where membership is down every year now. Virtual communities like Facebook and twitter do not put the same demands on our time and money. They are also easy, given that we can participate according to our own schedules.
    I am hoping that this effect is a temporary one; that once the limitations of online communities are felt more accutely by people they will return to more face-to-face interactions.

  2. Lawrence Zlatkin Says:

    I saw the article, and, as the parent of two bar/bat mitzvahed children at the Temple, and as the son of a survivor of the Shoah, I would never encourage someone to seek religion or spiritual fulfillment for their families via the internet.

    That being said, I had no problem with the people who chose this route for themselves.

    First, some people don’t live near established Jewish centers and may need the internet for training– e.g., they live in Texas 50 miles from a Temple and cannot make the weekly trek for training. I think we all would agree that the internet is the best solution for this challenge.

    But, second, I also think that anyone who chooses this route, and has not made the effort to join a Temple, is better off using it than using nothing at all. These are people who otherwise have chosen to disconnect from their Jewish routes. We all know people like this at work and outside our Temple community. They often live in Jewish communities like our own. To them I say, mazel tov and good luck. If this is all they can do or want to do in the modern age, so be it. Maybe their children will re-join our community and bless us with more active participation– who knows? And, if we therefore have imbued them with some semblance of what it takes to be Jewish, bravo for the internet.

    This is not the choice we would make or would want our children to make, but these services are not intended for us in the first place.

    • Lawrence Zlatkin Says:

      Hi Rabbi,

      Somehow, I wrote Jewish “routes” and meant Jewish “roots.” My apologies. My typing hands did not connect with my brain– something that happens in old age.

      Thanks.

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