Dear Cyber Rav,
My son is extremely shy. He is typically quiet in general, but when he gets into a crowd, he shuts down, PERIOD. In school, his teachers know not to call on him to recite anything before the class. He’s not dumb. Thank God—his grades are the best in the class. But he is saddled with a shyness that gets in the way of his socialization. My husband and I are working on it together with a therapist.
The thought of a Bar Mitzvah terrifies him. We went to a cousin’s Bar Mitzvah recently in New Jersey and he turned to me at one point and whispered “I don’t have to do this—do I?” The look on his face was the picture of extreme anxiety. It breaks my heart.
What do we do? He’s 10, soon to be 11. We have a date, naturally, for the reception and what Jewish kid hasn’t had a Bar Mitzvah? Ours may be the first. Can we have a Bar Mitzvah in our living room with just my husband and myself, my daughter and a rabbi?
A Worried Mommy
Dear Worried Mommy,
When I was a kid, I actually went to a synagogue that was set up in the rabbi’s living room, and the kiddush was in the dining room. It was pretty cool, but that synagogue doesn’t exist any more and it wouldn’t have resolved your problem. Let’s think this through a bit.
First of all, tell your rabbi about the situation and I’m sure he (she?) will agree that if, two years from now, a public ceremony would be traumatic for your son, then a public Bar Mitzvah will simply be out of the question. Does that mean your son will never become Bar Mitzvah? No, and that’s a no for two reasons. First, he will still become Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13 years and one day precisely because Bar Mitzvah is a status that is automatic. It happens, whether we like it or not. So many people, over the years, have told me that they are not Bar Mitzvah because they never had a ceremony. I tell them—not really. You are Bar Mitzvah; it’s automatic.
Secondly, whose to say that your son, at the age of 14 or 15 or 16, might not have a change of heart and want a ceremony at that time? That can be done and it has been done. The Bar Mitzvah ceremony is simply a milestone, and not everyone runs this course of life at the same speed.
We should also keep in mind that we may be worried now about a problem that will not exist two years from now. I am glad your son is working with a therapist. We don’t want extreme shyness to interfere with the rest of his life—socially, intellectually, or professionally. Bar Mitzvah, in this light, is the least of our worries.
Finally, just to keep all of this in perspective, a Bar Mitzvah is a lovely ceremony, but hardly the point of a Jewish education. Imagine how much money I could save families if I could convince them to give up the $50,000 reception in favor of Religious School tuition through the twelfth grade. That’s what is really important. By giving your son a Jewish education, both he and you are doing your job. As for a small Bar Mitzvah in the living room, well—that’s up to you. But remember that even in that case, the Torah is generally not read without a minyan.
Celebrate his coming of age at 13, and then when he is ready to come before the congregation, as I’m sure eventually he will be, I’m equally sure that the rabbi will be ready to call him to the Torah if not encourage him to do even more.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav