The Moving Traditions B’nai Mitzvah program is a new model of Jewish education for students and parents that speaks directly to the psychological, spiritual, social, and developmental issues that pre-teens face as they prepare for and celebrate the rite of passage.
Why This Approach?
Moving Traditions works in partnership with local communities—with rabbis, cantors, lay leaders, and educators—to help our youth connect authentically to one another within the Jewish community, challenge the stereotypes and social systems that hold them back, and ultimately, to change the world for the better.
To work toward this goal, Moving Traditions’ educational model bridges two worlds: We bring together Jewish teachings on self-reflection, ethics, and spirituality with a developmental psychology-based and gender-critical understanding of the needs of Jewish teens. Since adolescence is a time of intense identity exploration and formation, we try to pay close attention to the ways that gender codes and other social pressures hold teens back from reaching their full potential. Each program we promote undergoes an extensive review and research process, pilot testing, and revision, so that it can have the maximal educational impact.
The “B’nai Mitzvah” Years
For parents and children, the “b’nai mitzvah years”—ages 12 and 13—are noted for their challenges.
The beginning of middle school is a time when pre-teens are struggling to define themselves and to make sense of new social realities. It is a time of excitement, learning, confusion, fear, and fun. Expectations from parents, peers, teachers, coaches, and perceived expectations from the world of digital media inform middle-schoolers’ sense of self-worth. Amplified gender messages about how to act, dress, and socialize hit right as our pre-teens prepare for the bimah.
Developing This Curriculum
Prior to drafting any curriculum, we met with educators in five very different cities, we helped plan a conference on b’nai mitzvah with the Jewish Education Project in New York, we spoke to psychologists and social workers who work with pre-teens, and we researched the current work in this arena being done by education directors, cantors, and rabbis in 25 institutions. As we worked with pilot partners to develop curriculum we also worked with an independent evaluation team, Informing Change, to design a data-rich evaluation system and obtain feedback from a set of over forty partners who took part in our national launch. As a result, we now have feedback from over 900 families that reflects overwhelmingly positive experiences in these sessions – reported by both adults and pre-teens. The program is receiving rave reviews in communities of different sizes, of various varieties (mainly Reform and Conservative but there are also Reconstructionist, Un-affiliated, and one Traditional synagogue) and in various areas of the United States.
Core to the program is a field-tested curriculum that offers family education sessions and sessions for pre-teens (6th and 7th graders).
In the pre-teen curriculum, we begin by taking seriously pre-teens’ questions about bar/bat/b’ mitzvah and the ethical implications of those questions. We specifically focus on questions that go beyond the ritual itself, the parsha, and the service.
These questions include:
- What does becoming a “teen” really mean?
- How do I feel about being the center of attention?
- When do I try to fit in and when do I just be myself?
- What will I wear?
- How do I manage stress?
- What is expected of me when I am a guest?
- What are my responsibilities as a host?
- What kind of celebration should I have?
- Who are my friends? And what part will they play in this process?
- What does the community expect from me?
- What do I expect from myself?
- What do my parents expect of me?
- What does the Jewish ritual mean to me?
- How do I feel about continuing to be active in Jewish life?
- What does it mean to be a mensch?
In the family education sessions we help parents (and other caregivers) to understand the concerns that their pre-teens are facing and to reframe the b’nai mitzvah as a rite of passage into becoming a Jewish teenager. Through informal education games, discussion, and Jewish text-study we help parents to understand the current challenges facing adolescents and explore ideas of personal growth, self-reflection, and communication through a Jewish lens.
Our goal is to continue to learn as much as we can about how this curriculum, and the resources that we are creating around it (listen to the @13 podcast and learn more), will impact the b’nai mitzvah conversation. We deeply value your interest in this program and your input as we move forward.
Rabbi Daniel Brenner, Chief of Education
Rabbi Tamara Cohen, VP, Chief of Strategy
Pamela Barkley, Director of Strategic Implementation
Jen Anolik, Curriculum Manager
This work is possible through the generous support of:
An Anonymous Foundation
Auerbach Family Foundation
CJP—Combined Jewish Philanthropies
The Lasko Foundation
Crown Family Philanthropies
Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles
The Covenant Foundation
The Lowenstein Family Foundation
And the many individual donors who support Moving Traditions.
We are grateful for all of the support that made this program possible!
Read more about this program’s impact on families here.