The chanting of the haftara has become so closely associated with Ashkenazi b’nei mitzva that it even spawned a joke: The singer Neil Diamond is approached by a millionaire to perform at his son’s bar mitzva. “Fine,” says Diamond, “as long as I don’t have to do the whole haftara.”
But beginning with the newest crop of b’nei mitzva students at Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, families can opt out of having their children chant the haftara at their service. In its place, they will lead various sections of the davening, or prayer service, on Shabbat morning and/or Friday night.
The switch is in large part an effort to provide young people with skills they can use regularly as prayer leaders. Rather than focusing closely on the haftara — a selection from the books of Prophets that changes week to week based on that week’s Torah portion — the new policy offers the youngsters a chance to focus on skills like leading the Saturday morning Musaf and Torah services and chanting from the Torah.
“Those are the ‘marketable’ skills,” said Rabbi Steven Bayar. “Then, when they go off to college, it will be natural for them to go toward a davening crowd.” By contrast, the haftara each youngster learns comes around only once a year. “We haven’t been able to guarantee that a child can do the haftara the next year or years” after his or her service, Bayar said, because of other b’nei mitzva taking place. Even if they could, he added, “waiting a year to use the skill again is counterproductive.”
And there’s also the issue of engaging families in worship services. “At some services, you can just sense when people are not understanding what is going on,” said B’nai Israel’s Cantor Lorna Wallach. “They are not singing along; they are not familiar with the traditional service, and it’s a long service — three hours on a Saturday morning.”
The question was, Wallach said, “what do we do to empower them more, to include them more in the service and have their children and the family do more so it doesn’t feel like the clergy are leading the whole service. We want to see more kids able to participate and lead the service” often. Even for those who know the service, she said, “It’s one thing to chant along from the pews, and another to lead.”
But, Wallach added, “One of the biggest challenges will be getting the kids to want to do something different from their friends. At 13, they just want to do what everyone else is doing.”
Currently, most b’nei mitzva at the Conservative synagogue memorize the maftir section of the weekly portion, a few lines from the Torah reading preceding the haftara reading. They are called to the Torah to recite the aliya blessing, chant the haftara, offer a sermonette called a d’var Torah, and, on Friday night, lead the Kiddush blessing.
Under the new regimen, they will learn Torah trope, or cantillation, instead of haftara trope, and will be expected to read other aliyot in addition to the maftir. And they will learn to lead certain sections of the service — which ones will depend on the family and the child.
“We want to know what skills they want to acquire,” said Wallach.
Parents learned of the new initiative at an April 19 meeting for new b’nei mitzva families. The initiative is the result of about a year’s worth of discussion, first between Bayar and B’nai Israel’s Cantor Lorna Wallach, then with the religious affairs committee, and finally with the congregants.
It was ultimately put to a vote by the board of trustees. “It began with a recognition of the findings of the Pew Study — that the sanctuary is not the only future for us as a people,” said Bayar, referring to a 2013 survey of American Jews by the Pew Research Center. “If we want to keep the sanctuary an important part, we have to begin to train people to be comfortable in the sanctuary.”
Shari Brandt, whose twins will celebrate becoming b’nei mitzva in February 2016, said she always wondered why at Friday evening b’nei mitzva services, the students didn’t lead more of the service. Even though she never voiced her feeling, she said, “I feel like this is a direct response.”
The custom of reciting the haftara — as well as the aliya, d’var Torah, and chanting some Torah — all date back to the Middle Ages. But there is no requirement under Halacha, or Jewish law, that b’nei mitzva do any of these things. In fact, Jews become bar or bat mitzva simply by reaching the age of majority — 13 for a boy, 12 for a girl.
“It’s all minhag,” or custom, said Bayar. “There’s nothing halachically groundbreaking. It’s just deeply entrenched minhag. What makes it groundbreaking is that no one is doing it.”
At B’nai Israel, as at most synagogues, b’nei mitzva with the ability or interest often take on more of the service to lead. For those with less ability and/or special needs, the (much shorter) Minha, Shabbat afternoon, service or a Rosh Hodesh simha have been offered and will continue to be options for these families.
While “a handful” of parents have already told Wallach they want to retain the traditional approach, other parents seemed to welcome the options.
“I’m very excited,” said Brandt. “My kids do not go to yeshiva and therefore they’re not getting that daily training for Shabbat and daily services. For me, a fundamental part of preparation for a bar mitzva is preparation for Jewish life after the bar mitzva. And I don’t see haftara as a skill I see people repeating, and it’s not something they’ll need in college to stay connected. But if they know the service and feel good, that’s exciting.”
“I think it’s a lifelong payoff,” agreed Sydra Miller, whose son will celebrate becoming bar mitzva next spring. “I think it’s so smart for kids who will spend a lot of time learning the haftara and never need it again, but don’t know the other prayers. They don’t feel comfortable in synagogue, and they don’t like going because they don’t know the prayers. It’s a smart thing to allow kids to have the knowledge they’ll use all the time in life going forward.”
As for who will take on the haftara, Bayar said it could be assigned to another family member. That option thrilled Miller, whose 12-year-old son will become a bar mitzva next spring.
“Maybe my older daughter [now 14] will chant the haftara,” she said. “Or maybe I will. I haven’t read haftara since I was 13. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to do it again.”