What happens when a bar/bat mitzvah student can’t ‘perform?’

Daniel Lawson FLICKR

By Rabbi Erin Polansky

At a bar or bat mitzvah, the young person is celebrated as he or she chants the Torah and Haftorah, and perhaps delivers a dvar Torah, or leads some portion of the service. But what happens when a child cannot handle the Hebrew? What happens when there’s a learning difficulty, a language issue, an attention issue or some other legitimate reason why the young person is unable to “perform” in the traditionally expected way?

In many congregations, and until recently even my own, we would have the child fake it. In other words, he or she would memorize it. Sometimes, when memorization wasn’t possible, a sheet of paper would be discretely slipped over the Torah scroll, so the student could read using Latin characters.

Then, the young person would be lauded for “learning” to read Torah. And although no one in the congregation would have any idea of what had really transpired, the young person would.

I recently began thinking about this scenario from the child’s perspective: how does it feel to be celebrated for doing something that you didn’t really do?

Becoming a bar/bat mitzvah means reaching the stage of Jewish adulthood. It means taking on the responsibilities for one’s own Jewish choices and assuming a place in the community.

I think that when we have our young students “fake it,” we are giving them the impression that they are not adequate –  that their Jewish community wants them to be something they aren’t. This isn’t the message we should send to our young people.

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