Confessions of a Bar Mitzvah Teacher

Friday, 24 June, 2011 - 10:41 am

Zach Greenberg was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah. At the reception his relatives and friends got up to present their gifts. One relative gave him a Siddur. Another gave a Chumash. The Rabbi gave him an umbrella, explaining that he knows the umbrella will definitely be opened.

Throughout my years at Chabad of Louisiana one of the more rewarding aspects of my work has been training Bar Mitzvah boys. Bar Mitzvah preparation is different than other types of teaching because it inevitably involves some memorization. For some it is memorizing the Trope (cantillation notes) for the words of the Torah portion or Haftarah. For many of the Chabad boys it is memorizing the Ma’amer (Chassidic discourse) that they will deliver at the Bar Mitzvah.

Teaching memorization involves providing the techniques and then being a motivator to ensure that the boy stays on schedule. While this may take up more Bar Mitzvah lesson hours, in my opinion, it is by no means the most important element of the training. Far more vital is training the boy to be a committed Jew. As a matter of fact, the Rebbe recommends that Bar Mitzvah teachers deemphasize the Torah reading and focus more on the laws and inspiration of what it means to be a responsible Jewish adult.

A member of our community shared with me that he was “Bar Mitzvah’d” in an Orthodox Synagogue, where he was trained to do a wonderful performance of Torah reading and Haftarah. However nobody ever mentioned anything to him about Tefillin. Years went by before he ever realized that they were something that people still used.

When I sit down with parents of a Bar Mitzvah boy to map out the strategy, I tell them that we will divide our lessons into three parts. One is the “performance.” The second is the laws of Tefillin and prayer, especially with a minyan. The third is inspiration on being Jewish. As the training goes on there is a point where one observes the “light go on” in the boy’s mind and heart. He begins to have a mature perspective on the nature of commitment to Torah and Mitzvah fulfillment. This more than anything is the most gratifying part of Bar Mitzvah training.

This week the New Orleans Jewish community lost one of its oldest members, Mr. Morris Bart, Jr. We express our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Hertha, his children, Buddy & Cathy and Vivian & Richard, and to the grandchildren. It is obvious that Mr. Bart and his wife have succeeded in passing on a legacy of devotion to the Jewish community as is evidenced by the wonderful deeds of their children.

Riverwalk 99 3.JPGI did not meet Mr. Bart more than once or twice, but I have one memory of him that I would like to share. At the Chanukah @ Riverwalk celebration in 2000 Chabad put together a ceremony, which we called “Passing the Torch of Jewish Continuity.” We had a number of people representing different generations symbolically pass the torch from hand to hand. Mr. Bart represented the generation of WWII veterans. I will never forget how he proudly walked across the stage with such dignity and strength (despite walking with a cane). He truly gave me a sense of what having fought in that war meant to him and what it ought to mean to us.

I am certain that his family will draw strength and comfort from the life he led. May G-d comfort them amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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