1. To give information about the importance of a bar mitzvah.
2. To negotiate our mutual commitments and expectations for the family and Jason around preparation and synagogue attendance and for the synagogue and my responsibility to the family.
3. To mitigate the family's anxiety about the event.
I greeted the Kaplans and ushered them into my office. To break the ice, I commiserated about the Mets going down the tubes and asked how their vacation with their parents in Scottsdale had been. Judy answered that it had been wonderful and the grandparents were eagerly waiting to come east for the bar mitzvah next year. Indeed, Mrs. Schwartz had already begun to look for her dress.
I was a little nauseated at this remark, but hope I didn't show it. I took this as an entry to talk to Jason who was sitting apart and looking very nervous. I asked him if he was looking forward to his bar mitzvah. He said “yeah” and looked away.
Mrs. Kaplan broke in again to ask whether or not she was responsible for the oneg Shabbat. I told her that there would be a special meeting of all bar mitzvah families to handle those questions. Mrs. Kaplan asked then about flowers for the pulpit. I repeated what I had just told her. I began to feel annoyed and realized if I didn't get to the subject I was going to be spending all my time on petty arrangements. I turned to Jason again (he was staring at the floor) and asked him if he knew why we had bar mitzvahs? He said “yeah.” I asked him why? He said “to be a man.” His voice was barely audible. I felt like I was getting nowhere. Lenny had not said a word and was looking impatient. Time for my spiel, I thought.
I explained that it is assumed that when we are children, our parents are legally and morally responsible for our actions. If Jason throws a ball through the window, it is his parents who must pay. But when we reach adulthood, we begin to be culpable for our own actions; no longer are our parents responsible for all we do. (At this point, I looked at Jason and felt silly; he's such a child. But I forged on.) I said this did not mean that the parents could renege on their responsibilities to instruct Jason on how to be a good citizen and a good Jew, but bar mitzvah indicated a time of transition from childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood. It was also a transition for the parents who now shared responsibility with Jason. I asked, “do you understand?” Judy said “yes.” Jason looked at the floor and Lenny grunted and looked at his watch.
I said that the synagogue and I would be helping them make this transition. Jason would be attending at least three Shabbat services a month and I hoped his family would come with him. Lenny spoke for the first time, saying he wanted to come to shul, but sometimes couldn't make it because of business. I said I thought it was important; I knew he found time to coach basketball and I hoped he would treat this as another team activity (I tried for levity but Lenny grimaced). I told Jason what his bar mitzvah preparation would be. I asked him if he agreed and he said “Yeah, I guess so” in a whisper. Judy asked if the “real rabbi” would be working with Jason. I said that would be worked out. She asked if the “real rabbi” would be doing the bar mitzvah. I said I thought so. I asked if there were any questions. Judy asked if we had ever used K & K caterers. By this time I had lost my patience, told her I didn't know, but that would be covered in the pre-bar mitzvah parents meeting, and said I hoped to see them all at services this weekend. Lenny said he knew he couldn't make it, but Jason would be there. Jason looked at him with annoyance. I think we were all glad to end this conversation.
I think this went pretty well considering this family's lack of interest. Why do parents even want a bar mitzvah if they care so little about it? I got across all the information I wanted to. I set up my expectations for them, although I have my doubts about Lenny coming on Shabbat. Maybe I could have been a little stronger about this? I feel that I did not really reach this family, however, and to be truthful, I feel very annoyed with them. Judy is only interested in the party, Lenny has no interest in anything, and Jason is totally withdrawn. They have very little commitment. What could I have done to get them to address the real importance of bar mitzvah? I also am having doubts about why we are still doing bar mitzvah at thirteen (I've heard in some places they are delaying it until sixteen). Jason seems so immature, certainly compared to the bar mitzvah boys of 2,000 years ago. And he is not getting much help from his parents. Could we discuss this? Also, I think it might help if I had something to give them in writing about arrangements, etc. It seems those questions get in the way of what I have to do.