For a boy or girl turning 13, their bar or bat mitzvah is treated as a special day. But what happens if it’s someone else’s special day, too, and their family and friends have come to cheer them on?
It happens, to twins and triplets, who have grown up sharing the spotlight. But other teens find themselves sharing the bimah with another boy or girl. Families interviewed for this story said sharing the simchah can be just as fulfilling as a solo one.
Large congregations tend to double up on b’nai mitzvah. At Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, about 100 kids per year have a bar or bat mitzvah, so there are about 40 shared services and 10 individual services each year, said Cantor Michael Shochet.
“Sometimes it helps to have another family to lean on and share that moment on the bimah together,” Shochet said. “There’s the shared stress of it, the shared to do list.”
Temple Rodef Shalom member Alison Pease said her two sons each had a shared bar mitzvah, one in 2017 and the other this month. She said that although the preparation was individual, she enjoyed sharing the experience with the other families.
“I enjoyed sharing the moments with them, like the Friday night moments, and the kids being nervous before,” she said.
“The first time, we knew the family — the boys had been in kindergarten together. It felt very easy and sweet,” Pease said. “This time, it was a family I didn’t know until a year before. They encourage you to meet your [bar mitzvah] partner’s family. It was nice because we got to know a family we hadn’t known.”
The temple assign pairs three years ahead of time, has them meet a year before the event and assign tutors nine months before the event. All the kids with a bar or bat mitzvah in the same month do volunteer work together.
Pease said the parents of each partner discussed and decided on their roles during the service.
“We all have roles during Friday night services, so we decided … the moms were going to light the candles and the dads were going to open the ark,” she said. For the bar mitzvah service, she said, the mothers read from the Torah and the fathers held the scroll.
Rabbi Gary Pokras of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville said his synagogue sees what they call partnered b’nai mitzvah as a “very commonplace occurrence.”
He said the two teens and their families will meet about six months ahead of time, but otherwise their preparation is done individually.
“In the way that the service runs, in the way that we prepare the children, in the meaning and power and beauty of the moment, there really is not a difference between a single and a partnered service,” Pokras said.
Each child reads the same amount of Torah and haftarah, and the partners lead the service together — something Pokras said the synagogue’s Hebrew school students are already accustomed to doing.
Similarly, at Washington Hebrew Congregation, the ceremony is considered part of the child’s ongoing Jewish life, Rabbi Bruce Lustig.
“It’s not about performance, it’s really about the process of giving the children the tools to participate in Jewish life,” Lustig said. He added that the synagogue tries to create a balance between the communal aspect of a shared bar or bat mitzvah and each person’s individual experience.
“They’re lifted up as individuals, but they’re also a part of the fabric of the congregation.”
Washington Hebrew Congregation divides up the service each partner can participate equally. The cantor and rabbi who will be present at the service also work with each family.
“The opportunity that we get in spending that intimate time with that family is something that’s sacred,” Lustig said.
What starts as a shared bar or bat mitzvah can also become a lifelong friendship.
Said Lustig, “I have done weddings in which the bridesmaid was also [the bride’s] b’nai mitzvah partner.”
Mother and daughter share the moment
Harriet Vorona, 47, shared her bat mitzvah with her daughter Carolyn, 17. Vorona didn’t have a bat mitzvah as a teen, and when Carolyn started learning Hebrew, she said, “Mom, I really want to do my bat mitzvah, but I don’t want to do it alone.”
So they prepared together for six months. At the service at Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield this past November, they chanted most of the blessings together, and each did the maftir, the concluding Torah reading, individually.
They each led parts of the Torah service, Vorona said, and both she and Carolyn gave divrei Torah.
“I knew if I was going to lead this entire thing I would just be stressed and I didn’t want to be stressed,” Vorona added. “I wanted to just enjoy the moment.”
She also said their tutor, Gary Lescowitz, split the haftarah, or reading from the Prophets, because he felt it was important that the maftir be done twice. It was also his idea to chant the blessings together, Verona said, adding,“It was just so special to stand up on the bimah next to my daughter and participate in this ritual that is generation to generation.”