This article is not about Sam Horowitz, the 13-year-old YouTube bar mitzvah superstar.
Well, it's somewhat about Sam Horowitz. Because through more than 800,000 views of the video of his entrance to his bar mitzvah party, Horowitz sparked a conversation about the meaning of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.
But I do not know Sam Horowitz, his parents, other relatives, or his friends. All that I know about him is what I've seen in his video, what I've heard in his interviews, and what I've read in the press. And, I admit, I'm impressed by him.
First of all, I'm impressed by his generosity. Apparently, in lieu of gifts, Horowitz asked for guests to give donations to the Ben Yakir Youth Village in Israel. The youth village has received more than $36,000 from Horowitz's guests and fans so far.
I'm also impressed by his commitment to dancing. In one interview, Horowitz stated that he practiced with a choreographer for about 3 hours a week for the month leading up to the Bar Mitzvah celebration. He also stated that he can see himself in a career in dancing.
Working in education, I have met a lot of 13 year olds, and I've prepared quite a few of them for the religious observance of their becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. However, rarely have I seen that kind of drive or commitment. It has taken quite a bit of "encouragement" on the part of me and the students' parents to convince many students to practice their Torah portion every day, or to study Jewish texts in order to prepare a dvar Torah (sermon) that reflects what Judaism can teach them about their lives.
We could not guess what effort Horowitz put into preparing his Torah reading or a dvar Torah, though his rabbi, Rabbi Bill Gershon, praised him quite vividly. But even given Horowitz's apparently active commitment to his Jewish community, is that the point? Do we have the right to judge someone's commitment to Jewish values based on how he approaches synagogue attendance and ritual?
In the Book of Proverbs, we are taught to "educate the youth according to his path" (24:6). From what he has stated publicly, Horowitz would like to pursue a path of professional dancing. Proverbs, then, teaches us that his family and teachers are correct to pursue that path and that passion, and that he should be encouraged to grow in that field. However, how one pursues his chosen passion is where the meaning of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah expresses itself.
When preparing our children and students to become Jewish adults, should we focus just on the religious ceremony, on the preparation of leading prayers and Torah reading? Or should we combine those values with other Jewish values for life beyond the ceremony? If we don’t teach the values of personal responsibility, love and respect for humanity, and the need to help others, will we truly live up to our responsibilities as educators and parents?
Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah does not require any special ceremony, religious or secular. It simply requires reaching a certain age where one becomes responsible for his or her own fulfillment of the commandments. Thus, even the traditional religious ceremony involving months of preparation and study is just that — a ceremony. Certainly those who take that preparation seriously are transformed by the experience, and hopefully begin to acquire the tools to become productive members of the Jewish people. Our study of Jewish texts and prayers links us to previous and future generations, as well as other Jews around the world.
But who is to say that our celebration of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah should not include other aspects of our life? When Horowitz took his passion for dance seriously, pouring hours into preparing his routine, he showed important steps toward adulthood. By asking his guests to give money to charity instead of buying gifts for him, he demonstrated his awareness that the world is not perfect, and that he has a role in repairing it. And by asking for those donations to go to a youth village in Israel, he showed his commitment to being a part of the Jewish people. Let's hope that every young Jew enters Jewish adulthood with a commitment to those values. Even if they do it without even a single view on YouTube.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.