Jewish Studies & Education graduate student Ilana Horwitz attended the 48th annual conference of the Association for Jewihs Studies in San Diego, CA.
“We've treated this whole bat mitzvah as there are life skills to be learned,” remarked Aviva’s mom as she and her husband reflected on their daughter’s bat mitzvah. As we sat in their sunlit living room, they glowingly told me about Aviva’s powerful voice while she delivered her d’var torah, her confident demeanor as she led shacharit services, her ability to set and accomplish a significant goal, and her valuable involvement in choosing invitations, food, and decorations for the party. If b’nai mitzvah mark children’s transition to Jewish adulthood, why are Aviva’s parents so focused on her social skills rather than the skills she needs to participate in Jewish rituals and engage in mitzvot?
This paper is based on a study of b’nai mitzvah in the San Francisco Bay Area, which I (along with my research team) conducted in 2015. We took a deeply qualitative approach to understand the experiences of seven families whose children were becoming b’nai mitzvah at one of four San Francisco Bay Area congregations. In this paper, I argue that parents see b’nai mitzvah as an opportunity for their child to develop a set of social life skills that will help them act like adults in a secular, upper-middle class social world. Parents’ in our study, all from upper-middle class families in the Bay Area, are experts when it comes to the performances and behaviors that attend to the norms of upper-middle class, American, social life. We refer to their expertise as “social knowledge.” Based on their social knowledge, parents ascribe the meaning of the b’nai mitzvah based on the social skills their child develops— not the Jewish content of what their child learns or the new roles and responsibilities that the child can assume once he becomes a bar mitzvah. As one parent said, “As much as [the b’nai mitzvah] it's this Jewish experience, and they're learning about their religion, there's also this component of, kind of social, emotional development that's really powerful.” The conflation of the b’nai mitzvah as a coming of age ceremony rather than a Jewish coming of age ceremony may suggest that it’s impossible for parents to parse out the difference between the Jewish and social secular world. Alternatively, it could mean that the benefits that come along with becoming a b’nai mitzvah — being counted as part of a minyan, reading Torah, laying tefillin— bear significantly less weight for these liberal Jewish families than the benefits of their children being able to function in an adult world. Again, what parents value reflects their experiences in the secular world and they imbue these values onto their children through subtle expectations. For parents in our study, the fact that their child has developed skills that enable him to assume new roles and responsibilities in the Jewish community is secondary to the fact that their child has developed skills that, parents believe, will enable him to thrive in the secular world.
 This research is conducted with the following colleagues at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University: Professor Ari Y. Kelman (Lead PI), Ziva Hassenfeld, Jeremiah Lockwood, and Matt Williams.