Secular Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah Program
The City Congregation’s bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah program is unlike any other you have seen or experienced. It is tailored to each individual young person to ensure a rite of passage that is not only challenging but captivating. The process gives secular Jewish teenagers a deep, personal, and lasting link to their heritage. And it allows non-religious Jewish families to mark this important milestone while remaining faithful to their beliefs and values.
Our program requires around a year and a half to complete, with concurrent classes and individual preparation. Some students have attended our Jewish KidSchool since they were three years old. Others join us at age 11. Still others begin after the traditional age of 13. Since 1998, nearly 100 young people have had a unique City Congregation Humanistic bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (212) 213-1002 to find out about openings in our program.
Read presentation papers by our bar and bat mitzvah students.
Our students take responsibility for designing their own course of study in preparation for becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. They learn to defend their choices and opinions in a community of caring but demanding adults, including their teachers and parents, their mentor, the b’nai mitzvah program director, and the rabbi.
We do not assign a Torah portion. For Humanistic Jews, the Torah is one part of a vast heritage of Jewish literature that stretches from biblical times to the present day. However students are welcome to investigate any component of ancient or modern Jewish literature and to examine it critically as part of their studies.
For those who live outside of New York City, we offer a DIY bar and bat mitzvah package that includes limited support.
One-on-One study with a mentor
Each student is individually guided through the bar or bat mitzvah process by an adult member of the congregation. The mentor encourages the student to think more deeply about each element of the program. Individual attention helps the student set goals and meet deadlines. Mentors are members of our community with a demonstrated commitment to working with young people. Many parents of previous bar and bat mitzvah students have become mentors to other children as a result of their own experience in our program.
“What this congregation asks of its bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah kids is radical. Self-discovery, values clarification, engagement with texts and the world in a deep analytical way at a moment in their lives when cleaning their room is an impossible task. And yet you did it – not clean your room – the other more impressive stuff.” — Howard, to his daughter Liana
Scroll down to see a 90-second video about our program
What happens in a secular bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah?
Our bar and bat mitzvah students are required to do in-depth research and writing in four subject categories that prepare them to take on the responsibilities of adulthood in the Jewish community: family history and family values; personal beliefs; heroes and role models; and a Jewish topic of own their choosing that they will make the theme of a major presentation to the congregation and their guests.
Additionally, students learn-by-doing through community service and engagement in Jewish cultural activities.
Family history and values
Students discover their families’ values and the sources of their own values by interviewing relatives and collecting family stories.
We respect all the varying cultural backgrounds of our families and help each student come to terms with all aspects of their heritage. Children from interfaith, intermarried, or multiethnic families can have a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah that honors their non-Jewish roots as well. Non-Jewish family members are encouraged to participate fully in the b’nai mitzvah process.
Examining personal beliefs
Students at this age are beginning to formulate their own ideas about a wide range of topics and our bar and bat mitzvah program encourages this process of discovery. We challenge young people to think about their beliefs, their values, and their place in the Jewish world. There are no right or wrong answers. We are interested in stirring their minds and engaging them in a profound activity that will make a lasting impact in their lives.
Heroes and role models
After deciding what matters most to them, students consider notable people from history or contemporary culture who exemplify these values. They also contemplate issues of perfection and imperfection and their own aspirations for the future. Our students have chosen heroes and role models ranging from prime ministers to revolutionaries and from scientists to comedians.
Major presentation on a Jewish topic
The centerpiece of The City Congregation’s humanistic bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah ceremony is the student’s in-depth presentation on a topic they have decided is important to them. We help students create a project that they will find engaging and that will strengthen their Jewish identity. Students have shared this project in any number of forms including oral presentations, self-produced videos, musical performance, and even a self-choreographed dance. We welcome creativity!
Some of the many topics explored by our students include the history of klezmer music, the shofar, and Masada; Jewish humor, Jews in the garment industry, and the development of modern Hebrew; the Holocaust and righteous gentiles; and the history of gefilte fish and iconic Jewish delicatessen food.
We are extremely proud of the outstanding work done by our bar and bat mitzvah students and invite you to read a selection of their essays.
“I’ve attended many uncomfortable, boring, and less-than-meaningful bat mitzvahs where the children mumbled some incomprehensible words and everyone was focused on the party afterward. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting our daughter through that. With this program we’re not pushing something on her, we’re sharing what we want her to value and she’s choosing what’s important to her.” — Mickie, on her daughter Lanny
Learning by doing
Students are asked to identify a societal problem or issue that is important to them. We then help them find volunteer work to put their values into action. Our students have worked in soup kitchens, senior centers, and animal shelters, raised money to fight diseases, and engaged in political activism.
Students also experience Jewish culture first-hand by visiting institutions such as the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island, and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, and by attending movies, plays, and concerts with Jewish themes.
“For me, becoming a Bat Mitzvah is all about learning to make choices. I knew that my rabbi and mentor trusted me and so did my parents. Making choices meant taking more responsibility and the more responsibly I act the more choices I will be able to make in the future.” — Irene
Learn more at one of our three September information session/open houses
Classes for secular bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah students
While working on their independent projects, students also attend our Jewish KidSchool classes two Sundays a month on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We educate our children in our cultural, ethical, and historical Jewish heritage.
Our secular bat and bar mitzvah curriculum
The Year 1 curriculum (usually 6th and 7th grade students) has two components. The first half focuses on the theme of tzedakah (justice) and the Jewish response to poverty. The second studies antisemitism, prejudice, and the Holocaust.
The Year 2 curriculum (7th grade and up) also has two components. The first focuses on Jewish history. It explores the distinction between legend and fact and culminates with the emergence of modern secular and cultural options for Jewish identity. The second deals with the state of Israel and contemporary issues.
The bat and bar mitzvah faculty
Bar and bat mitzvah director Isabel Kaplan is a clinical psychologist. She has previously served The City Congregation as a co-president and the director of the KidSchool. Dr. Kaplan works closely with Rabbi Peter Schweitzer on students’ projects and the planning of their services. Bar and bat mitzvah class teachers are professional educators and social workers with significant training and education in Jewish studies.
Understanding what we say and saying what we mean
Many of us in our own bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs read the Hebrew words of the liturgy without knowing what they meant. That practice is inconsistent with our commitment to saying what we believe and believing what we say. Our students learn a few Hebrew phrases and concepts but mostly address the congregation in English unless they are already bilingual. We will also support a student’s desire to learn Hebrew or Yiddish for comprehension rather than rote repetition. We applaud a student’s enthusiasm for this challenge which we regard as an additional project that students may choose to undertake. We are happy to help find an appropriate tutor.
“Becoming a Bat Mitzvah took a lot of effort and time. I know now that I am capable of such hard work and of devoting so much time to something I love. I am proud to be Jewish and feel like I have really earned my place in the adult community.” — Molly