Observations of a Rabbi Who Never Became a Bar Mitzvah

By Jack Stern

From Reform Judaism, Winter 1997

Reprinted with permission from the author and Reform Judaism Magazine — Published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations

Many years ago I was working with one of my bar mitzvah students, who was totally negligent in his preparations. Exasperated, his mother finally turned to the boy and said: “I’m sure that Rabbi Stern studied hard for his bar mitzvah, and that’s what you should be doing!”

I was grateful that the mother made her point as a statement rather than a question because the truth is, I never became a bar mitzvah.

I grew up in Cincinnati, in the synagogue of my parents, my grandparents, and Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the “master architect” of Reform Judaism in American. Like many other Reform congregations in the late ’30s, our synagogue did not hold bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies. The worship service was conducted primarily in English. No one wore a kippah or a tallit; the closest we came was an atarah, which was affixed to the rabbi’s robe.

The congregation of my childhood was still in that stage of Reform Judaism spawned in Germany early in the nineteenth century and transported several decades later to these American shores. With its varying hues and textures, it came to be known as “Classical Reform,” and it still persists in some congregations throughout contemporary America. My childhood congregations, however, is not among them.

From its inception, this new Jewish expression was a bid by those Jews of western and central Europe, now liberated from their ghettos, to take their place in the brave new world of intellectual enlightenment and political emancipation, a world in which the dictates of reason were expected to propel all of humanity toward a bright new day of universal brotherhood and peace.

In order to stake out their claim in America, the Reform pioneers divested themselves of any tradition that might separate them from the mainstream of their now-expanded world, discarding whatever smacked of the old life in the ghetto. The bar mitzvah ceremony was deemed “Antiquated” and replaced by Confirmation. The skullcap traditionally worn during congregation worship was tossed off, as was any expression of hope for return to Zion, which, they thought, would make them suspect of disloyalty to America.

Today the early Reformers are often maligned for attempting to disclaim or hide their Jewish identity. This might have been true for some, but for many others, and especially for the leaders, the exact opposite was the case. Our pioneers embrace their new identity with passion precisely because they saw themselves as Jewish bearers of a grand message to the world.

When I was about fourteen, I attended a religious school course on the biblical prophets and the impact of their ethical teachings on community life. To this day I can visualize the striking figure of the Prophet Amos in his peasant cloak barging into the sanctuary in Sumeria and railing against the people. “You sell the poor into slavery, you cheat your customers with false weights and measure, your judges are corrupt because you corrupt them — and then you dare to put on your finest clothes in a show of sumptuous sacrifice with this soaring music and convince yourselves that this is what God wants? Well, let me set you straight. What God wants, in place of all of this, is for `justice to well up as waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ ”

This was the message these early reformers embraced: that there is one God who represents what is ethically good and right and who requires human beings to live their lives accordingly. It was a message of personal morality, person to person: do not cheat, do not exploit, do not lie, do not abuse. It was a message of social morality, person to society: transform God’s shabby world into God’s moral world, a world in which the weak and the poor are protected and unoppressed. If such a message, with all its rational cogency, could be delivered, the pioneers believed, then the rest of humanity would be bolstered toward this more decent and peaceful world.

The reformers went one step further. The most effective way to carry out their mission and imbue it with credibility, they reasoned, was for the Jewish people to begin with itself: to conduct itself, collectively and individually, as the living example of an ethical model. The task could best be accomplished not so much by preserving the old customs and ethnic separateness but instead by providing the model of personal and social morality and thus becoming a “light unto the nations.” With pride and passion, they carried the banner of Jewish ethics, Jewish morality, and Jewish responsibility to make God’s world a better place. It was no coincidence that in 1918, decades before the birth of the Religious Action Center in Washington, the Reform pioneers campaigned for an eight-hour day, decent wages, the abolition of child labor, and healthier conditions in the workplace.

Returning to Peoplehood

But already in the Classical Reform temple of my childhood, there was a hankering for some of the emotional energy of religion that the age of rationalism and Classical Reform had locked in the closet. It was the kind of emotional energy that ritual and ceremony could provide, with a touch of the mystical, the warmth of a traditional observance, and the very sound of the Hebrew word.

In the 1930s, the chill winds of anti-Semitism were in the air with the menacing preachments of Father Coughlin, the storm clouds over Germany, and the consequent doubts, even among some Classical Reformers, about the virtues of society’s mainstream. At the time American was absorbing a massive influx of Eastern European Jews. Many of their children had joined Reform congregations, bringing a strong sense of Jewish tradition and peoplehood, of belonging to a people not only with a moral, religious mission but also with a unique culture and ethnic solidarity.

All these forces began to alter Reform Jewish Identity. It was no longer anathema to speak of a return to Zion. The two rabbis of my home congregation were avowed Zionist, and even some congregants had become Zionist supporters.

Then came the watershed events of our lifetime. The wrath of the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel shook the soul of the Jewish community. The key word become “survival.” Israel must survive. Judaism in America must survive; otherwise we would grant Hitler a posthumous victory, desecrate the memory of the victims, and disgrace our mission to be a “light to the nations.”

This was the second stage of Reform Judaism in America, a stage marked by survival, ethnicity, and Jewish peoplehood. Reform Judaism did not abandon the tenets of Jewish ethics, but the balance was shifting. The Jewish moral message had become a given, not an active pursuit. A new banner had emerged — “Never Again!”

The New Age

The 1970s and 1980s brought forth a new generation, the baby boomers, into the synagogue. Born after the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish State, this generation, to paraphrase Leonard Fein, defines itself Jewishly not by what to avoid, not by “Never Again,” but by what to embrace. Eager to enhance the quality of their lives and skeptical of mainstream society’s values, these seekers have turned to Jewish sources for better definition in their lives. Some are seeking a rudder in the storm of their illness or financial distress or broken marriage or an all-too-palpable sense of loss. They seek a way to celebrate their joys, and mostly they seek a confidence in the meaning and purpose of their lives. And they have ushered us into a New Age of Reform Judaism, an age marked by a banner with three insignias: spirituality, community, and tradition.


Many Jews have become aware of the need to connect with something beyond themselves, something they themselves may not comprehend rationally but sense instinctively. In response, the UAHC has developed kallot (spirituality retreats) which include session on spiritual healing, mediation, and Kabbalah. Healing services are now conducted in many congregations for those who seek spiritual support and comfort at a threatened time in their lives or in the lives of their loved ones.


By community I mean not just an aggregate of people who belong to the same congregation but a congregation of people who consciously break down the walls of isolation and loneliness. Our new communities reach out to Jews-by-choice and non-Jews married to Jews, not only to insure the Jewish upbringing of their children but to say: “You are part of who we are. You belong to this community.” We are challenged to reach out to strangers in our midst, who stand isolated at the oneg Shabbat awkwardly jiggling their coffee cups in a room filled with people. We must reach out not only to families in the traditional sense, but to divided families, single-parent families, gay and lesbian families, and individuals who live alone. In this new age of Reform Judaism, the temple family has taken on a new, serious, and authentic meaning.


Jews today seek a personal connection with Jewish tradition, not only when there is a birth, a bar/bat mitzvah, a wedding, or a funeral, but in the ongoing moments of their lives. They do not simply want to learn about the text, but to read and interpret the words themselves. If the kippah provides a sense of closer connection, then, they believe, it is their right to wear one, just as it is the right of others to pray without a head covering. When the Torah is removed from the Ark, our seekers want to touch the sacred scroll. And they want synagogue melodies to sing in their Jewish souls, whether expertly intoned by the cantor or choir or not so expertly by the chorus of their own voices.

The banner of this New Age offers powerful reason for our celebration. By making Reform Judaism more personal, joyful, and Jewishly authentic, New Age Judaism answers the critique of those who have turned away — some to Orthodoxy, some to Christianity, some just quietly away — because, they say, Reform Judaism has become cold and lifeless. New Age has opened the door to new possibilities, and infused new vigor into the expected.

Yes, it is a time to rejoice … but it is also a time for caution.

A number of years ago, I presided over a class of adult bar and bat mitzvah candidates. By the third year the class had become a model of New Age Reform Judaism: they had delved into their spiritual selves, developed a strong sense of community, and awakened to a new discovery of their own Jewish tradition. During the Shabbat service marking their rite of passage, the sanctuary was filled with people experiencing transcendent moments.

The following year I phoned one of the more active members of the group and asked him to share his experience with a new group of adult b’nai mitzvah candidates. “I’m sorry to turn you down, rabbi,” he told me. “I loved the class and I got out of it exactly what I had been looking for. But now I’m on to other things.”

Thus, a caution: with all the promise of the personal, Judaism should not become totally personal, totally consumed with “me.” When it comes to spirituality, however personally the spiritual self may connect to the Divine presence, if that connection does not prod the question, “and now what does that God call upon me to do outside of my inner self as a moral member of a moral Jewish people,” then, by Jewish definition, it is bogus spirituality. So too, if a seeker of community stops with himself/herself feeling affirmed and does not reach out to some other isolated person, to the larger Jewish community and to the community of humanity, then, by Jewish definition, it is less than authentic community. And with tradition, with all of its possibilities of warmth and beauty: if the only outcome is a warm and fuzzy feeling, without the moral urgency of our traditional covenant between God and Israel, without the Jewish moral passion of the early Reformers, then we have forfeited outright to celebrate the New Age of Reform Judaism, even with all of its exciting personal possibilities.

Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Chayim of Zans, who had married his son to the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer. The day after the wedding, he said to the father of the bride: “Look, my hair and beard have already grown white. I’m an old man, and I have not yet atoned for my shortcomings.”

“Oh my friend,” answered Rabbi Eliezer, “Why are you thinking so much of yourself? How about forgetting about yourself, including your shortcomings, and think about the world?”

The moral, says Buber, is to “begin with ourselves but not aim at ourselves.” In our New Age of Jewish spirituality, Jewish community, and Jewish tradition, we should begin with our own seeking selves but not stop there, not until we aim at God’s shabby world and God’s needy children. Then we shall have every reason to celebrate, because of the wonderful things we have brought to pass.

Jack Stern is rabbi emeritus of Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, NY; chairman of the UAHC Committee on Ethics; a past president of the CCAR; and presently a member of Hevreh of Southern Berkshire, Great Barrington, MA.