Bucking the Post B’nai Mitzvah Trend

At Temple Beth-El, kids don’t drop out after becoming bar or bat mitzvah. Here’s how they reshaped their program to counter the statistics.

by Lisa Friedman

The statistics are staggering. According to Dr. David Bryfman, seventy-five to eighty percent of Jewish children in North America become bar or bat mitzvah, yet only twenty percent of those children have some type of Jewish involvement post b’nei mitzvah.

Quite simply, that’s not good enough. These statistics indicate that thousands of young Jewish adults encounter the world with a seventh-grade understanding of what it means to be Jewish. Each year we lose countless opportunities to engage our young adults in meaningful, substantive, and rewarding Jewish experiences, thereby jeopardizing the chances that they will become active members of congregations and rear Jewish children of their own. This is a worrisome trend.

At Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey, we have worked hard to counter this trend. We know that we must engage our students after bar and bat mitzvah so that they can continue to grow as literate, compassionate, and committed Jews. To do this, we focused on taking an innovative and creative approach to reshaping our post-b’nei mitzvah program.

How did we do it?

First, we understood that change takes time. We knew that we wanted to create a culture within our community where it is normative for students to continue their Jewish education through twelfth grade. After significant programmatic brainstorming on the staff level, we convened a parent focus group and solicited student input. We made substantial changes to both the structure and curriculum of the existing program, and developed dynamic, experiential programs that engage students in active learning each time they come to school. We took our lead from the URJ camps, NFTY and L’Taken programming. Topics explored include capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, homelessness, and disability awareness.

We piloted the complete program, now called Confirmation Academy, in the 2007-2008 school year. During that first year, we encountered our fair share of bumps in the road, but with significant feedback from both parents and students we have found what works for our community. Our second program year met with resounding success. Here is an overview of what we have learned from this process:

Socialization is critical. The primary reason why students seek to discontinue their Jewish education after bar/bat mitzvah is the lack of significant friendships from Religious School. Jewish friendships matter. Each session of Confirmation Academy begins with dinner, which allows our students to spend time with their peers and build new relationships—a critical component of their continued Jewish development. Socializing and fostering Jewish friendships is not an afterthought, it is integral.

Curricular content is significant. Our students want to learn. After the pilot year an overwhelming majority of our students criticized programs that they felt weren’t “Jewish enough.” Our students want to learn and they want what they learn to mean something to them as young Jewish adults. Every Confirmation Academy program is therefore designed as a stand-alone lesson on a topic that is relevant to today’s world and every lesson incorporates text study.

Get the parents involved. The best way we have found to teach our teens that Jewish education matters is to engage their parents in the learning process. To that end, in addition to the staff members who lead each program, we solicit parent volunteers to serve as group facilitators. It sends a very strong message when a parent says, “I am coming to school with you tonight.”

We have now moved on to our next phase of program development by turning our attention to our eleventh- and twelfth-graders. Together with four other Reform synagogues, we have launched a community post-Confirmation program, called PaRDeS; a Reform Jewish Experience for 11th and 12th graders. Our goal is to send our students off to college with an increased knowledge base, a strong Reform Jewish identity, and a broader Jewish social network.

We are exceptionally proud of the program that we have developed. It is an ongoing process to change the culture of a community, but we are well on our way. We take every opportunity to speak to our parents and congregants about the value of post-b’nei mitzvah education. We look hopefully toward a time when there will no longer be alarming statistics about the lack of Jewishly involved teens to a time when continuing one’s Jewish education beyond bar/bat mitzvah is the norm for all Reform Jews.

Lisa Friedman is Education Co-Director and Director of Special Needs Education at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. In this capacity, she shares administrative responsibility for the temple’s education programs and supervises the Sunday Jewish Studies program, all high school programs and Special Needs programs. She works to ensure that every student has the ability to inherit their birthright of learning Torah and to develop a strong Jewish identity.

A version of this posting first appeared in Torah at the Center, Vol 13, No 1.

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