Practice Makes Perfect
One piece of advice that b’nai mitzvah tutors share with new students and their parents: To be successful on the big day, nothing takes the place of practice to master the required prayers and Torah and haftarah chanting it takes to earn one’s rite into Jewish adulthood.
Ideally, preparations to become a bar or bat mitzvah are designed to take the student beyond their milestone day and into the larger role of becoming a full-fledged Jewish adult who possesses lifelong skills in Jewish prayer and reading Torah.
Therefore, informal studying for one’s bar mitzvah can start years in advance with temple and synagogue attendance to familiarize the child with Shabbat services and the sounds of Torah and haftarah chanting.
But clergy and tutors have come to understand the shifting priorities and realities for ever-busier Jewish families and realize the student does the bulk of learning and exposure to b’nai mitzvah preparation during the nine or 10 months leading up to their date.
Cantor Samuel Greenbaum of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, who has tutored generations of b’nai mitzvah students, believes in the importance of not judging a child’s Hebrew reading skills in creating a comfortable environment for studying and preparation.
“I accept where they are and go from there,” Greenbaum said. “I tell my students that their bar/bat mitzvah will be an experience they will remember for a lifetime. My personal goal for them is to go beyond their own expectations.”
Ideally, Greenbaum said, the best way to prepare is for families to attend Shabbat services regularly in the years leading up to the coming of age ceremony.
“I’m a realist and I understand the world in which we live, and I try to have flexibility with the busy routines of parents and students,” Greenbaum said. “Students generally, no matter which Hebrew school they attend, have their first real exposure to the chanting when they begin their training with me, which is usually a year before their date.
“I encourage parents to also be part of the process by attending services more regularly. Many times, they will undertake learning how to chant Torah and will do so at the ceremony.”
One of Greenbaum’s former students, Teresa Rope Beckerman, 45, of Huntington Woods, described her and her husband’s pride when their twin daughters, Brooke and Eden, celebrated their b’not mitzvah last January, also under the guidance of Greenbaum. Beckerman, a Hebrew immersion instructor at Temple Emanu-El Early Childhood Community, said she believes it is important for Jewish institutions to reinforce the idea that Hebrew school is not the means to an end goal of having a bar or bat mitzvah, but to learn the lifelong skills to become a practicing Jew.
Beckerman said during their studies, the twins worked independently — sometimes getting together with their friends who were also practicing for their bat mitzvah to review the prayers — and there was no need to pressure them to practice.
“It was never about [pleasing] us,” Beckerman said. “It was all about wanting to make Cantor Sam proud of them on the bimah.”
Doron Vergun of Farmington Hills is a teacher at Adat Shalom-Beth Achim learning community and is also pursuing her master’s in Jewish education as she tutors children independently and for Temple Israel. Vergun has noticed a decline in Hebrew reading proficiency and the overall knowledge of prayers as temples and synagogues trimmed their religious school hours. She tweaks her lessons as best she can to meet the child’s ability.
“I find myself spending weeks at a time preparing students with the prayers they should have known by the fourth or fifth grade — or maybe they knew them but forgot them by the seventh grade — before I even begin their Torah or haftarah readings,” Vergun said. “That concerns me.”
Though there are no shortcuts, a tutor can ease a child’s difficulty with Hebrew by singing their readings into their phone for memorization or, if need be, providing them with transliterated Hebrew verses.
“I know my students do not shlep their binders with them everywhere, but I do know they take their phones with them everywhere,” Vergun said. “If that is the case, they can squeeze in some practice time anywhere: on the school bus, at night or waiting around at their sister’s gymnastics practice.”
Regardless of her students’ singing ability, Vergun assures her students — especially boys with changing voices — that the service is not meant to be a performance.
“I tell them, this is not an opera, and no one expects you to sing like a cantor,” Vergun said. “What I do expect of them is that they be disciplined and practice regularly. Proper preparedness will be evident on the student’s big day when they are calm, prepared and poised on the bimah.”
Cindy Kandel of West Bloomfield has been a tutor for 17 years and offers students the “Six P’s” of success: partnership — among parent, instructor and student; priority — the family’s full commitment to placing importance on coming to all scheduled lessons; passion on the part of the teacher for teaching an ancient tradition; consistent practice; patience and persistence.
“This is an easy formula for success, and there is no greater feeling than watching a child ‘come into his or her own’ on the bimah with confidence and pride in their accomplishment and, more importantly, themselves.”
If you are a GenXer, you remember popping a cassette tape into your recorder to practice your Torah or haftarah lines recorded by your rabbi, cantor or tutor.
Technology has changed how kids prepare for their b’nai mitzvah. Though nothing takes the place of a live tutor, Torah training the high-tech way leaves the student with more opportunity to be fully prepared. Here, some favorites:
Bible-ort.org This free website is a comprehensive go-to for quickly finding a source to hear one’s portion chanted. It features each sentence in Hebrew on one side and the English translation and Hebrew transliteration on the other. Each screen includes the Stam letters as they appear in the Torah.The drawbacks: When the user clicks on the audio icon, a recording window pops up, blocking the verses. Also, the singing/trope melody used in the software may not match the local customary Torah chanting of your synagogue.
LearnTorahTrope.com For the more advanced learner who wants to understand Torah and haftarah trope, this website offers free interactive lessons on learning trope patterns to read any portion, but does not contain individual recordings of weekly readings.
Pockettorah.com Available as a website and a mobile device app, this popular Torah tool enables users to read and hear every Torah and haftarah portion. It contains the entire Hebrew text (viewed with or without vowels), plus English translation and links to a range of commentaries, plus “on-demand” audio, with a karaoke-like feature highlighting each word of text as the recorded voice chants it. With a swipe of the finger on a touch screen, the view changes from vowelized to Tikkun Stam Hebrew with no vowels or trope. The company’s next installment, wedit.com, teaches users how to do traditional cantillation — a skill that can then be applied to chanting all Torah and haftarah portions. Both apps are available for free and funded with a grant from the Jewish New Media Innovation Fund. Drawback: Speed and melody can’t be adjusted.
Trope Trainer is a more robust yet expensive ($59.95-$164.95) training tool from Kinnor Software (kinnor.com), available on CD, as a downloadable application and a mobile app. It matches the student’s ability as he or she learns by adjusting the playback speed and reading entire readings, individual sentences or single words. Adjustable pitches and vocal ranges can be customized to match a student’s voice. Trope Trainer can also be customized to the chanting melody that best matches ones used by the student’s congregation. Texts can be printed out with or without vowels and trope or color-coded according to trope groups. Download as a single parshah or a full program that includes all Torah and haftarah readings, psalms, prayers and all five megilot.
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer