4 ways to add meaning to a Bar / Bat Mitzvah
Of course there's meaning in the ceremony, but often the goal of sustained impact is not as easy as you might think. Teens are exposed to the most lavish of parties celebrating this milestone, and it comes to them from many directions. The truest meaning of the Bar / Bat Mitzvah ceremony in progressive communities is often hidden under a heaping helping of material concerns.
The pressure is intense to have the most special event, the one that will be talked about. Teens will be judged on all kinds of things by their peers, who get caught up in the contest of outdoing each ohter. And honestly, can we blame them? Some decisions they're being asked to make are symptomatic of the problem: What will my theme be? Where should we have the party? Does the venue offer tastings? Which DJ should we hire? What should I wear?
The traditional meaning of this life cycle transition used to be a communal recognition of taking on additional commandments / mitzvot that would indicate new responsibilities to the community, like reading from the Torah, being counted in a minyan [prayer quorum] or leading a service.
Beyond all the tumult, hype, sweat equity, and of course, unparalleled joys leading up to the actual ceremony, we have to ask ourselves why the very purpose of the ceremony seems to be absent. So, here are some quick recommendations to add meaning to the ceremony:
Study the portion of the week together, and look for just one possible connection between its message and your teen's life. Reading commentaries will be essential for you to gain a deeper understanding beyond the simple narrative. Sometimes just one verse or even one word provides much insight.
Interview your teen as if for the first time, asking them what they most enjoy about Jewish life. Then, with this as a starting point, ask which additional mitzvot they would want to take on that will connect them to their synagouge or a Jewish community. Match their interest to a need. There are plenty opportunities for a budding artist, reader, sports player to get involved in helping others while using their talents.
Speak to the rabbi or communal leader about when there would be an opportunity to be called to the Torah again. Make sure that connections go beyond that day.
Arrange for them to speak to other teens, who will soon experience the same thing, about which memories last and which don't (hopefully, the impactful memories will be those of some heft and spiritual depth).