You need a barmitzvah renewal every 18 years

By Scott Shay, July 18, 2008
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Why stop at 13? Scott Shay urges ‘bar- and batmizvah-plus’ celebrations throughout life — and shuls are taking him up


Like many Jews, I don’t procrastinate: I put things off right away. This is especially true of spiritual and ethical pursuits, because of heavy career and personal responsibilities. How many of us have made plans finally to sit down and read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, but just never got around to it?

More concretely, how many adult Jews across the diaspora wanted, but never managed, to make time for community projects or activities after a gap year abroad or university studies? The truth is, when we plan do something some day, it usually means no day. Without a structure, we generally postpone what is important for the sake of what is urgent (Hawking v bills and work). The understanding of time in Judaism
addresses this human tendency.

Jewish time means more than arriving late without apologies; it is about carving out time for the holy and the profane, the everyday and the inspirational. Shabbat, the holidays, and life-cycle events structure time and activities for spiritual and ethical growth. Most people in the West have adopted the time orientation of Judaism to some degree and, in one respect, have surpassed it. 

Whereas Judaism only has one major individual milestone that is the entry into adulthood (namely the bar/batmitzvah, aka the exit from Hebrew school), across Europe and the Americas people celebrate milestones throughout the course of their lives.

Many Jews also observe these milestones, usually by throwing a party with family and friends. We have not, however, infused these types of activities with Jewish time, which means structure and specific activities or rituals to facilitate inspiration and personal growth. These milestones are therefore a lost opportunity.

We could change this. Milestones could become a way for Jews to engage in meaningful projects and learning at key moments in their lives. Many Jews are searching for meaning, and milestone birthdays are often a time when this search is most acute.

For many young Jews, 30 is the age when starting a career, getting married, and/or starting a family are central concerns. At 50, many Jews face mid-life crises, re-evaluate their priorities, wonder whether they took the right path, and think about their children’s future. For 65-year-olds, looming retirement, health and the prospect of grandchildren are important. Finally, after 80, many Jews wish to celebrate their lives, enjoy their families, and think about their past. While it is good to celebrate these crossroads with parties, we should not pass up the opportunity they provide to seek inspiration for each new stage in life.  

In other words, I propose that we infuse milestone birthdays with Jewish time, and thereby transform them into a new Jewish custom. In order to do this, we should designate the year before each milestone as the time to get around to those books or projects that always got postponed, or take up something new and meaningful.

Milestone birthdays would thus become like a bar/batmitzvah for different life stages. For symbolic reasons we should set the milestones at every 18 years after the bar/batmitzvah, since 18 corresponds to the gematria of chai (life in Hebrew) and to the interval between major new life stage (31, 49, 67, 85). But the idea holds for those who celebrate other milestones such as 30 or 40 etc.

The bar/batmitzvah-plus chai could become a new custom for individuals, friends, and/or communities to make time for what is important at the beginning of each new stage of life. The key to this new custom is to set aside specific times during the year before each bar/batmitzvah-plus chai celebration to engage in Jewish learning and activities in a concrete and structured way, as one does before the bar/batmitzvah. For example, one might cover 12 books one would otherwise never find the time to read, take up one of the community or social-action projects that always got put aside, explore one Jewish tradition that just always got put off, or even try something completely new. 

I have created a learning resource that offers models for participating in the bar/batmitzvah renewal on a busy schedule, contains an extensive bibliography of works by contemporary Jewish thinkers from across the spectrum, and offers concrete projects and practices based available resources for individuals, families and groups.  I would hope that many people will take up the bar/bat mitzvah-plus chai in a group setting.

The modern world is a confusing and conflicted place. The Jewish learning of most Jews in the world today does not provide us the tools to make sense of it from a Jewish perspective or even to determine if the Jewish perspective makes sense to us.  As a result, the bar/batmitzvah-plus chai is a custom uniquely suited to Jews in the present age.  

Many thoughtful Jews have risen to these challenges and opportunities with truly creative responses. Over the last decade, hundreds of Jewish thinkers, teachers and community leaders have wrestled with traditional Jewish texts and contemporary problems and come up with wonderful and innovative books and projects as a result, most of which are available in English. However, many of these works have only reached a small audience, often of like-minded readers, because we have not had an over-arching framework for Jews to grapple with these responses.

The idea of barmitzvah-plus chai seeks to rectify this situation by providing the time and structure for more Jews to engage with these ideas and projects. It is also a reminder that to live a responsible and committed life we need to take the time to engage with new ideas, to give back to the community and the world, and to return to the sources again and again.

While some may think that the notion that world Jewry will embrace this new custom is fanciful, I would note that the whole idea of batmitzvah is still less than 90 years old. I look forward to synagogues and other centres adopting bar/batmitzvah-plus chai as a normative life-cycle milestone. A number of American synagogues have told me they are planning to inaugurate the idea this autumn, and one has already invited me to the opening. Given the wealth of books and projects available but as yet unexplored by most Jews, I truly believe that this new custom could contribute to a renaissance in diaspora Jewry.
 
Scott Shay is the author of Getting our Groove Back: How to Energise American Jewry (Devora, £14.95), which he wrote at 49 for his barmitzvah renewal. His website www.gettingourgrooveback.com goes live soon
    Last updated: 2:42pm, July 25 2008