What My Bar Mitzvah Means to Me: James Ryan (2011)

By October 22, 2011December 21st, 2018Bnei Mitzvah, What It Means to Me

James Ryan
October 22, 2011

For me, becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a major milestone. When I started attending KidSchool seven years ago at City Congregation, I did not understand the significance of my Jewish heritage and beliefs. I figured that a Bar Mitzvah was just another thing in my life that would not matter to me in a few years, much like any other birthday, and that I did not have to think about it much.

Two years ago, after completing five years of KidSchool, I started on my Bar Mitzvah process. Although I had learned a lot about my Jewish heritage, I was still confused about why a Bar Mitzvah was so important, since neither of my parents or any of my grandparents had one. I figured that the process would only be a lot of work. I barely had any idea what to expect from a Bar Mitzvah with the congregation, since I had only been to one, and heard about more traditional Bar Mitzvahs at other congregations.

Traditionally, a Bar Mitzvah is the final step in a long process which eventually results in a 13 year old boy officially becoming a “son of the commandments.” This also means that the person is considered a young adult in the Jewish community and is responsible for all of his actions. Starting at the turn of the 20th century, girls began going through a similar process to become a Bat Mitzvah, or “daughter of the commandments.” It is customary for the student to learn and read a portion of the Torah (the first five books of the Jewish bible, or Old Testament), lead the service, and lead the congregation in blessings that pertain to the reading. To do this, the Bar or Bat Mitzvah must undergo study and training to learn to read and sing in Hebrew.

With this in mind, I learned that I would be preparing for a service that would be drastically different from a conventional Bar Mitzvah. For instance, instead of reading from the Torah, I would be writing and presenting research papers. When I originally heard that I would not be studying for a Torah reading, I first wondered how I could still go through the process to draw from it what another Bar or Bat Mitzvah student would.

Since I was born into The City Congregation nearly 13 years ago, my parents always wanted me to have my Bar Mitzvah with The City Congregation. They felt that this would be an extremely important milestone in my life as a Jew, and that I would always look back on it with pride and that they would help me to reach this point. With their support, I went forward.

After two years of working on my papers and the service, I finally realized that the service I was building up to was an actual, meaningful Bar Mitzvah, on my terms, based on what I believed. After this entire experience, I now feel that I am considered a young man in my Jewish community. I am more responsible for my opinions and verbal expressions, and I now take my place along with other Bar and Bat Mitzvahs who have come before me.

In addition to strengthening the connections to my Jewish heritage, I found through this process that I was able to connect more strongly with my Irish history as well, particularly after my major paper. When I did the research for that paper, I realized how much of a connection there was between the two sides of my family. Better yet, I was able to find that the history of Judaism in Ireland was something that I could identify with based on my Jewish and Irish background. I was able to relate what I had researched to who I am.

Of course, I could not have completed this process without the care and support of many people, the most important being my parents. They both helped me to edit my papers (and edit, and edit, and edit), helped me organize the service; find a place to have the service, and helped me make this day a reality.

I would also like to thank my relatives, particularly my Grandma Reva Ratisher, my Nana Jeanne and Oopa Jim Ryan, my aunt Julie Ryan, and my uncles, Dave Ratisher and Matthew Ryan for all of their support for this day. Whether they helped me get a sense of my family history, helped me to understand where my values come from, or traveled here to see the service, they were all extremely important in helping me understand who I am and what I believe.

Several people at The City Congregation, particularly Rabbi Peter Schweitzer and Isabel Kaplan, head of the B’nai Mitzvah Program, have given me support, encouragement, and editing advice with all of my papers. Thanks also to Aram Rubenstein-Gillis for his music. I would like to extend my thanks to my KidSchool teachers over the course of my Bar Mitzvah process, Rick Barinbaum and Daniel Levin. They helped me prepare and pace myself during the last two years.

Finally, I would like to give a very special thank you to my mentor over the course of this process, Devera Witkin. She was very helpful in editing my papers, providing support during the periods of intense work, and for helping me to understand the process better, one step at a time. I would also like to extend my thanks to Devera’s husband, Michael Witkin, for sharing Devera with me.

Thanks to everyone once again for coming to my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating with me and my family. You all made this process worthwhile.