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Saturday Night Fever

Why some families are opting for havdalah bar or bat mitzvah services

Jordana Horn
August 13, 2009
A braided Havdalah candle.(Bracha for the light. by Alexander Smolianitski; some rights reserved.)
A braided Havdalah candle.(Bracha for the light. by Alexander Smolianitski; some rights reserved.)

Like many adolescents before her, Tessa Rothfeld put in a lot of time preparing for her bat mitzvah last November. She studied her Torah portion, and she practiced other parts of the service she’d seen peers perform at Congregation Ohav Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio. But Tessa also had to learn some liturgy that was less familiar to her: the rites surrounding havdalah, the service that marks the end of Shabbat and the transition back to the work week. Her family had opted to have her bat mitzvah on Saturday evening, meaning that it would encompass the trio of late-day Sabbath services—mincha, maariv, and havdalah—rather than the typical morning Sabbath service of shacharit.

Rothfeld’s havdalah bat mitzvah is hardly unique. Although there are no statistics on how many congregations have adopted similar practices, the popularity of havdalah b’nai mitzvah seems to be growing throughout the country, for a host of reasons having to do with observance, convenience, and exclusivity. While some view the trend as evidence of the adaptability of Jewish ritual, others worry that it is simply one more dilution of a rite already hobbled by materialism and general disinterest.

“At first I wasn’t happy with the havdalah bat mitzvah, because it was new to me,” said Rothfeld, now 14. “I felt like I had to learn everything all over again. But then I began to like it. It was a unique and fun experience for me.”

There are several other reasons why families opt for havdalah b’nai mitzvah—to accommodate Orthodox relatives who will not attend non-Orthodox services on Shabbat, for instance, or those who stay too far away to walk to synagogue but could drive to a havdalah ceremony that begins after sundown. Additionally, Haber said, sometimes families opt for a havdalah service because there is less material for a child to master and therefore less pressure. (At Congregation Mishkan Tefila, a Conservative synagogue in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, which has offered havdalah ceremonies for 20 years, they were originally reserved for children with special needs “who could not handle the material or the crowds of a Shabbat morning bar or bar mitzvah,” said Rabbi Geoff Haber.) The havdalah ceremony is a shorter and more exclusive service, since fewer members of the general congregation attend. And, sometimes families choose this option because it means they are excused from sponsoring a mid-day kiddush lunch for the synagogue, which adds extra costs.

Then, of course, there is the fact that some families want to get to the post-service Saturday night festivities without the intervening hiatus of Shabbat afternoon. “Whereas the Shabbat morning service tends to be a little more haimish, the havdalah bar or bat mitzvah feels more like the prelude to a party, more like the opening act, as opposed to the act itself,” said Rabbi Dan Ain of The New Shul, a nondenominational progressive congregation in New York City. “It was a bit striking to see everyone in their Saturday evening dinner attire,” Ain said, recalling his first havdalah bat mitzvah experience. But, he added, “there is almost no way to avoid the ‘party’ aspect of the b’nai mitzvah experience, and to a certain extent, the tail will continue to wag the dog.”

Ain pointed out the merits to the havdalah service as a bar or bat mitzvah. “Havdalah is a beautiful ritual that literally means separation of the holy from the mundane, of Shabbat from the rest of the week, of who we are before to who we are now, from technology to our lived life. These are exactly the concepts that bar and bat mitzvah students are grappling with as they approach adulthood,” he said. “Exploring them—at the time in which they enter our community, as adult members whose voices should be heard and appreciated—seems particularly appropriate.”

Not everybody, however, is a fan of havdalah b’nai mitzvah. Havdalah, after all, does not typically include any Torah reading, a fundamental part of a traditional bar or bat mitzvah. But rabbis who are open to having havdalah bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies are likewise open to incorporating parts of the morning Shabbat service into havdalah.

“It’s an untraditional choice, as Torah is not usually read on Saturday evenings,” said Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport of the Reform Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom in Louisville, Kentucky. “But assuming the family is fine with that, I don’t think there is ever a time when we should not be reading Torah.”

Rapport is more concerned with havdalah b’nai mitzvah forfeiting the communal aspect of the ceremony. “We feel that it is very important that our b’nai mitzvah students step forward to become the leader of our congregation in prayer,” he said. “This seldom happens on Saturday evenings, since the congregation as a whole worships together on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.” Many congregations do not regularly hold communal havdalah services. Rabbi Joseph Meszler of Temple Sinai of Sharon, Massachusetts, said his congregation generally does not offer havdalah bar and bat mitzvahs because they only have one rabbi and one cantor—there is simply not enough staff to run morning services and evening bar mitzvahs. While their main reason for not offering the service is based on logistics, Meszler said, he has other misgivings. “The havdalah service removes any semblance of [the bar or bat mitzvah] being a community event and makes it into almost an exclusively private party,” Meszler noted. “People can also dress in evening clothes that are not usually appropriate for synagogue.”

Still, there’s always freelance clergy. Cantor Debbi Ballard, an independent cantor based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has offered havdalah bar and bat mitzvahs for the past five years. They account for half of the 20 to 30 b’nai mitzvah at which she officiates each year. “A Shabbat morning service can tend to be somewhat predictable and mechanical,” she said. “I like to turn my havdalah services into something more meaningful, more thought provoking, and more inspiring, as we begin a new week. I try to encourage my congregants to envision peace, and to appreciate the peaceful feelings they experience, to attempt to bring more of that into the world.” Jordana Horn is a writer and lawyer at work on her first novel.

Jordana Horn is a writer, journalist, contributing editor for Kveller, lawyer, mother of five, and tremendously sleep deprived.