Bar/Bat Mitzvah vs HW for New York Teens
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by Abbey Gold August 26, 2008

Which of the following sounds like your about-to-be-Bar/Bat Mitzvah-ed teen?
1. “Mom, I have so much homework. I promise to finish my Torah studies later.”
2. “But it’s Sarah’s party tomorrow... Can’t I miss Hebrew just one time?”
3.  “I have soccer practice, remember? Can you reschedule the tutor?”


For me, it was all of the above. My second daughter just had her B’nai Mitzvah in May, and as fabulous and meaningful as it was, I’m glad those arguments/negotiations/compromises are behind us.



   And I’m not alone. Jane Danenberg of Harrison admits she used to dread the evenings her son, Adam, had a lot of homework because she knew he’d give her a hard time about studying his Torah portion. “There was always something going on with various homework projects and after-school activities,” she says. “And always an excuse.”
   Stacey Cohen’s daughter, Amanda, also gave her a run for her money, and fed into the Mount Kisco mom's “Jewish guilt.” “She knew how to play me,” she says. “She was constantly telling me how tired and stressed she was from doing too much. And as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I let schoolwork come before her Hebrew studies.” In the end, she says it all worked out.

   Time management is definitely an issue for kids this age, says Hebrew tutor Audrey Wachs (who helped my daughter) The bottom line, she says, especially in today’s overscheduled times: balancing schoolwork with Hebrew studies requires patience, compromise and a plan.

Have a routine
   Kids need routine, experts stress. But they also need help (and, dare we say, a push) from you. According to Emily Haft Bloom, the author of The Bar/Bat Mitzvah Planner, you need to know your child and consider his needs before anything else. Maybe you have a child with learning disabilities and so need to work with the rabbi to accommodate their limitations. Or maybe you have a perfectionist who tends to implode from internal pressures, a procrastinator who needs some gentle prodding, or a kid who simply has too much on her plate.
   “There are basically two schools of thought when it comes to this rite of passage,” says Bloom, the Chappaqua mom of two Bar Mitzvah-ed sons. Some approach the Hebrew studies as a means to an end — that end being the party, with the service to be “gotten through.” For others the studies are the most important aspect of the celebration, and the children need to take this seriously. “It’s easy to say, ‘Well, my kid works hard in school and plays 10 sports and is a disciple of the yogi and the ace player on his tennis team,’” Bloom says, “but that's all irrelevant because this is a totally separate thing. This is about self-discipline and organization, and if your child is going to be an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community, then he/she needs to rise to the occasion.”

   Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D., director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, who’s counseled a lot of parents and teens over the years, agrees. He says that parents have to help their kids prioritize and let them know that this is a significant rite of passage. Determining what works in terms of your child's schedule is key. And yes, that often means cutting down (or eliminating!) some activities.

   You also need to be clear about your expectations and values, letting your child know what you’re willing to compromise on and what you’re not. Emily Fisher, of Larchmont, switched her son's drum lessons around, cutting them out altogether as his Bar Mitzvah date approached. I got rid of my daughter’s flute lessons for six months, and Danenberg says she started her son's tutoring about 18 months in advance so he'd be less stressed and still be able to keep up with his after-school activities.

   Simplifying your child’s daily routine, whether it’s cutting back on her normal activities, getting more organized at home, or beefing up Hebrew tutoring, is one way to ease the pressure. Another is to be flexible within reason. “Every kid deserves a break and should not feel that they have to be constantly studying their Hebrew text or preparing their speech,” says Dr. Donahue. “That said, it should be possible to balance 7th- or 8th-grade schoolwork and Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation (at least until the last week or two), and kids should understand that those two come first. They may have to miss an occasional practice or game or school event to meet with their rabbi or cantor. This is about setting priorities and being clear about what’s important in the life of your family.”

   You also need to empower your children and foster their independence, advises Catherine Pearlman, LMSW, a New Rochelle-based family coach: “Make it clear that they have, say, till 8pm to finish their Hebrew studies. And then give them consequences if they don't.” The end result: it’s their responsibility. After all, they’re prepping for Jewish adulthood.  Andrea Wertheimer, of Cortlandt, made copies of the tape her son needed to listen to and photocopied his Haftorah portion so he could take it with him while he was at travel camp last summer. “I told him he needed to practice on the bus a few times a day,” she says, “and by the time his Bar Mitzvah arrived in October, he was all set.”

   Pearlman says a lot of praise and empathy for what your child is going through goes a long way. She advises saying things like, “I know this is a lot of work and that school can be intense, but I know you can do it if you just add 15 minutes a night.” “Most parents spend five times as much time nagging and focusing on the negative as empathizing and praising,” she notes.

   This is a good time to test out some new parenting strategies. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a rite of passage to adulthood and increased independence, which means your kids should take an active role in writing and preparing their speech and studying and commenting on their Torah portion. That, in a sense, says Dr. Donahue, is the point: this is a good time for parents to practice doing less. Treat your child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation like you would homework — expect to get feedback when you ask, and be available for editing or fine tuning as need be. You can also set reasonable parameters about the time allocated on a weekly basis for classes and studying.

Strategies
 So, how much extra work are we talking here? Usually a few hours a week, depending on how religious you are and how much Hebrew your child already knows. According to Sarah Spangenberg, a Hebrew tutor and Larchmont resident (who dropped honors math when she was preparing for her own Bat Mitzvah because she didn’t have time to focus on it), a teen may have to learn up to seven or eight verses of the Torah plus the Haftorah and prayers. Spangenberg advises tape-recording the passages as the best way to practice. That, and going “little by little.” She uses highlighters (a technique she stole from her Bat Mitzvah tutor), assigning different colors to different tropes, eliminating the need to memorize the hard symbols. She suggests talking to the rabbi about how much time your child should be immersed with this. “It depends on your shul but most rabbis are good at judging what your child is capable of,” she says.

   Emily Haft Bloom goes a step further, suggesting that you accompany your child to his class at least once a month. “You shouldn’t just drop off and pick up,” she advises. Bring your newspaper and sit there and absorb. Don’t let the fact that you may not know Hebrew deter you. Ask your child questions and have them explain the answers. Melinda McLaughlin, of Pelham, says going to her daughter’s Hebrew class was more enjoyable than she expected. “It was a great way for me to see firsthand what she really had to do,” she says. “Plus, it gave me time to talk to the rabbi and see what my daughter needed to focus on.”

   Being creative (or sneaky?) is sometimes the best way to help your child balance it all. Dana Asher said she resorted to having her daughter “perform” for her in a “theater-like” atmosphere as a way to get her to recite (and study) her parasha. “My daughter loves to act, but it was tough getting her to sit down and study,” admits the New Rochelle mom. “So eventually I figured out that if I sat and listened to her chant, she would be more than happy to read it once a night.  Each evening, I asked for a ‘performance’ of sorts, and by the time her Bat Mitzvah rolled around several months later, she was well rehearsed, so to speak, and excited to have the curtains go up on her special day.”

Plan ahead
 Planning ahead is key. Diane Freeman, who’s in the throes of organizing her daughter’s Bat Mitzvah in November, suggests that kids get their Torah and Haftorah portions months in advance of the suggested date and start working on them even before lessons start. “Just listening to the CD is a huge help,” she says. “We did just that and by the time my daughter started lessons, she knew almost her entire Torah portion.” The Westport mom of two says there needn't be stress if kids have time to work on their Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies without the added pressure of finals and other school projects.  “If we hadn't asked for the material in advance, my daughter would have been starting lessons at the same time as she was preparing for finals!” she says. She admits that many temples are reluctant to give kids their materials too far in advance, but says you can ask and receive. “For those children who are motivated, the extra time with their materials is great,” she says. “Not to mention a huge pressure reliever for you, the mom who’s most likely overseeing it all!”

   The best way for parents to reduce stress is by being confident that their child will do well and by sharing their convictions with their son or daughter, says Dr. Donahue. “Confidence is not a substitute for preparation, but kids need to feel that their parents believe that they will come through when it counts. Almost inevitably they do. I have worked with any number of kids who have risen to the occasion and far exceeded their own and their families' expectations on the big day.”