In 2023, more attention has been given to Hebrew schools than at any other time since its inception in North America in 1838. Well, maybe not. But the release in 2023 of both The Jewish Education Project’s report “From Census to Possibilities: Designing Pathways for Jewish Learners” and Adam Sandler’s Netflix movie, You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah, an adaptation of Fiona Rosenbloom’s 2005 young adult novel of the same name, might makes it seem that way. While you may be tempted to critique both, the census and movie reinforce findings and analyses that deserve our attention. Warning – this article will contain spoilers about both.Whether known as Hebrew schools, congregational schools, supplementary schools, or Sunday schools, this genre of “part-time Jewish education” is the setting in which most non-Orthodox Jewish children, aged five to 13, receive their primary form of Jewish education.Sandler’s depiction, for better, and perhaps at times for worse, of the bat mitzvah phenomenon does more than just normalize the milestone among other cultural coming-of-age ceremonies. The movie places the synagogue and family at the heart of where many children still learn to become part of their broader Jewish community.At the same time, the movie calls out the excesses of the moment – the “bar” over the “mitzvah,” as the saying goes. In referencing the ritual ceremony, the teenage protagonist states, “That’s not important. I mean, it is important to you and other old people and God and stuff. But to me, the party is important.”
Ultimately, however, the movie, as well as our census, emphasize that the bnei mitzvah ceremony (now referred to by some as a b-mitzvah) is not a celebration isolated from Jewish learning and commitments; nor is it graduation from Jewish life.Rather, the “mitzvah” ends up playing a starring role in the Jewish coming-of-age process. The fictional kids know that in order to have a bar or bat mitzvah party, they also need to give back to their community and the world.
The 'mitzvah project' has not always been around
While a “mitzvah project” seems embedded into this lifetime event now, that has not always been the case. We have part-time Jewish education largely to thank for this. As our census reinforces, Jewish education in most part-time settings aims to create a strong sense of community and belonging, instill in youth the desire and capacities to help make the world a better place, and provide meaningful Jewish experiences.
THERE IS, of course, a balance to strike in pursuing this aim. As the census describes, good Jewish education must focus on the whole identity of the individual. The movie, in this regard, does not shy away from the challenges of adolescence and puberty. At its best, Jewish education speaks to, and is informed by, the realities of life.Both the movie and the census also make clear that the coming-of-age ceremony is one for the entire family to partake in, even though different generations might have different expectations of the bnei mitzvah experience. Both the census and the movie implicitly acknowledge the autonomy and agency of youth today, which is enhanced for a generation embedded within the evolving norms of social media.Despite her quirkiness, the movie’s Rabbi Rebecca reinforces a key point that the census makes very clear: for a synagogue’s Jewish education enterprise to work well, the clergy need to be full partners in the child’s learning. The rabbi’s touchpoints with a soon-to-be bnei mitzvah can be profound and have a lasting impact. What the movie doesn’t quite get right is that rarely in congregations of that size is the rabbi the classroom teacher, the teacher of trope, and the guide for the child’s dvar Torah and mitzvah project.
BUT THE broader theme still holds true – successful part-time Jewish education depends on all stakeholders being involved in the totality of the educational program. The census and its subsequent reports argue that good Jewish education depends on all family members and leaders in the community, across different generations, buying into the learning experience.We are experiencing the most varied generation of Jewish youth ever seen in North America (the movie is a shout-out to Jewish diversity). The census report discusses the role that non-Jews could and should be playing in Jewish education, given that 72% of non-Orthodox Jews today have one Jewish parent. Rightfully so, the movie highlights the positive role that non-Jewish allies can, and are, playing in the lives of many Jews and Jewish communities today.Jewish education should be a place of joy and positive experiences, as noted in the census. The movie’s inclusion of “shabbat shalom hey” is relatable to many Hebrew school kids. Other sillier scenes around music show that Judaism and Jewish learning are multifaceted, experiential, and well beyond other Hollywood depictions of static, didactic, rote learning emanating from old Jewish men.