Secular B’nai Mitzvah: A Collective Experience

The first weekend in June is a heady time for the Zayen (7th grade) class of the Boston Workers Circle when our students, along with their family and friends celebrate their Secular B’nai Mitzvah with ritual, personal statements, and of course food and dancing! Our Secular B’nai Mitzvah is rooted in the traditional Jewish rite of passage from childhood and into adulthood but, like many secular Yiddishist families who came before us, it is done in a group (rather than individually as a bar/bat or B mitzvah) and involves a research project lead by the intellectual and creative direction of each student.

As members of the Boston Workers Circle community, the Secular B’nai Mitzvah students have the opportunity and honor to lead and teach us; to add their voices to our collective efforts to create and shape the future of progressive secular Jewish life. The B’nai Mitzvah has two primary components: a project presentation and a personal statement which is read at the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony. 

For their projects, the Zayen students prepared oral, written, video, and poster projects on a topic of their choice as a means to explore their sense of Jewish identity.  Our Shule young people come from a variety of cultures, many living in interfaith and intercultural families that embrace multiple traditions and for many of our students, this was a chance to reflect on the heritages that are braided together with their Jewish identity to make them who they are.

In 2023 the young people’s projects covered a wide variety of topics reflecting their interest in exploring their connections to Jewish identity through family histories, traditions, and food; Jewish connections to their personal passions. Some students created guides for their families to use for holidays and compose music.

  • Jews and Dance
  • Jews in Aviation
  • Jews and Baseball
  • Jewish composers and violinists
  • Jews and Stage Magic
  • How Austria Acknowledged the Past: A Personal History
  • Family Immigration History
  • Creating a Secular Jewish Haggadah for Passover
  • Shabbat Traditions: Assimilation, and Reclamation
  • A B’nai Mitzvah Cookbook of Important Recipes
  • Beyond the Bagel: Jewish Diaspora Food Traditions and History

The work of supporting our students to research and prepare their presentations was shepherded by their persistence and unstoppable teacher, Sarah O’Connor, and a team of community and family mentors. The students were coached to think deeply and critically about their topic and invested in their work speaking confidently to a room of 100 people about what they had learned.

At the ceremony itself, 350 people joined in person and on Zoom to participate in BWC’s ritual ceremony of candle lighting, songs, and readings marking the B’nai Mitzvah moment. Each child stood up to speak about what Shule and their Jewish education had meant to them with honesty. For some, being Jewish was connected to a sense of being part of an important history, a supportive community, and joyful rituals and learning.  Others reflected ambiguous feelings about going to Sunday school on Sunday morning and even about their Jewish identity. However, a theme that jumped out from each student’s reflections, was the ease and comfort in being able to articulate what Jewish traditions, history, and community didn’t and did mean to each of them.  It was a gift for each child and for each adult listening.

Check out these photos from this year’s ceremony and celebration! Photo credit: Molly Hamill

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