Judging by the traffic on relevant mailing lists, lots of Reform congregations have the problem of families expecting to "own" the service at which their kid is bar or bat mitzvah. ("Own" means the kid does most of the service, family members get all or nearly all of the honors, the parents stand up and kvell about the kid for several minutes, and so on.) The topic came up again this week, with someone asserting that we have to make kids feel welcome and this "cannot be done" by a service not owned by the family.
I find myself wanting to write about this from time to time, so I'm recording my response to that message:
If we are to embrace and welcome the students as they attain their next level into adulthood and make them feel wanted, we must support them in their studies and praise them for their accomplishments. This cannot be done by 'community owned' services.
It can be and is done. I have been to services in several congregations where a bar or bat mitzvah was an integrated part of a community service, with the family neither "owning" the service nor being sidelined. It can work. I have only seen this once in a Reform congregation (Holy Blossom in Toronto); it is the norm in Orthodox and many Conservative congregations, and it worked beautifully the one time I saw it at Shir Chadash (traditional egalitarian) in Jerusalem.
The problem is the following vicuious cycle: families in the "it's all about me" generations in America demand ownership and won't participate in a community service, they get this, as a result the community doesn't come to the "private" service, and so more families feel justified in this expectation ("they don't come anyway"). This is made worse by the fact that most of our members don't see our congregations as important communities; I see much more of a "consumer" attitude. If you're part of a community then of course you want to celebrate your milestones together; if you see the synagogue as the place where you buy services such as a bar mitzvah, you're less likely to be interested in what the community wants or needs. I'm not pointing fingers; this is just how it looks from here in the pew, from someone who's there pretty much every week and sees who does and doesn't come regularly.
I don't know how you stomp out the "private bar mitzvah" once it's present; congregations that have never let it take root do not seem to have a problem with b'nei mitzvah feeling, and being, welcomed into the community. And I sure don't know how we fix the broader problem of community engagement.
From comments (archive):
Part of the reason it's generally not been a problem in the (Orthodox) congregations I've seen is that the kid/family is part of the congregation before, during, and after that weekend
Bingo. The family is part of the community, and naturally the community wants to celebrate milestones for its members. Alas, many families join synagogues just to get the bar mitzvah, come rarely, and disappear right after; the sorts of folks with this attitude are going to seek out congregations that have less of a "full community" meme to begin with, so (1) that's more likely to be larger liberal congregations and (2) by doing so they help increase that perception for the next such family, and now the cycle is off and running. :-(
My syngagogue certainly has communities within it, most notably (to me) the informal Shabbat morning minyan. We're there for Shabbat, for study and prayer. This group celebrates its members' milestones, though we haven't yet had a bar or bat mitzvah because not many kids come. But we're a 40-50-member community within a synagogue with over 800 households, so most of our members never see this. (It's not for lack of outreach; they're just not interested.)
I think part of it depends on whether the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is at a regularly scheduled service or not. If not, there is more the perception that this is a private service.
Indeed. We have our 10:30 Shabbat morning service only if there is a bar or bat mitzvah (which, to be fair, is about 75% of the time). We have the informal, partly-lay-led service at 9:00 every week. So the 10:30 service tends to be the family show. However, we also read torah Friday nights at our regular community service and, a few times a year, there will be a bar or bat mitzvah at that service. And the families behave the same way as they do at the 10:30 morning service, except we only do 3 aliyot and not 7 and the rabbi encourages them to keep the parental kvell short (which some blow off; I've seen kvells that run 10 minutes, which is at least 8 minutes too long).
It seems to me that that Friday service is our opportunity to change things. Some families view a Friday-night bar mitzvah as a booby prize (though we never assign it, so they asked). We need to change that perception; a Friday-night bar mitzvah, when you have the whole community there, should be an honor. We should take the families that "get it", the ones who understand that this is a community and not Egoboos R Us, and ask them to celebrate their b'nei mitzvah on Friday nights with the community to model the desired behavior. Maybe, over the course of a decade or two, we could effect a change in attitudes.