B’nei Mitzvah

It’s an incredibly proud moment for our entire community when a young person embraces Torah as their own and becomes a b’nei mitzvah at Temple.

“B’nei mitzvah” literally means a “child of God’s commandments,” and it symbolizes the transformation from child to adult in the eyes of our faith, a spiritually meaningful milestone for the young adult and their family.

At 13, a b’nei mitzvah is not yet an adult, but they are also no longer a child.

They are old enough to start thinking about ideas and concepts on a higher level and to ask questions about their Jewish identity.

When a b’nei mitzvah recites the blessings over the Torah, they are affirming that they are old enough to be responsible for all that is being passed to them – our traditions, rituals, teachings, and culture – and that they will uphold and, in turn, pass it to the next generation.

Note: While “bar mitzvah” denotes a male, and “bat mitzvah” a female, here we use “b’nei mitzvah,” which applies to any gender as well as a ceremony that includes more than one child.

A Brief History

We find the words “bar mitzvah” used in the Talmud in reference to a boy who has reached majority age (13 years + 1 day), but it is wasn’t until around the 15th century that a ceremony took place in the synagogue to celebrate such an event.

In 1864, Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the Reform Movement in the United States, introduced the concept of Confirmation to our country. to the American synagogue, where young people in 10th grade learned and recited the principles of Judaism. For approximately a century in Reform congregations, Confirmation replaced the b’nei mitzvah ceremony. By the 1970s, however, the b’nei mitzvah ceremony returned to its status as the most popular ceremony for young Jewish adults.

Accounts differ about when the first bat mitzvah was held. Some claim it was Judith Kaplan, daughter of the famous scholar Mordecai Kaplan, in 1922. Others claim it occurred earlier in Europe.

Today, in Reform and Conservative synagogues, the b’nei mitzvah ceremony is the same for all genders.

About the Service at WHC

A teen becomes a b’nei mitzvah at Washington Hebrew when they read from the Torah publicly for the first time – most often during our Saturday morning and evening Shabbat services.

In addition to being called to and reading from the Torah, during the service, the b’nei mitzvah will also lead the congregation in prayer, read from the Haftarah (a selection from the Prophets), and share their thoughts on the Torah portion and its connection to our lives through a d’ var Torah (words of Torah).

It is truly a Shehecheyanu moment!

Resources for Parents and Guardians

As your child prepares for the journey toward becoming a b’nei mitzvah, you may be wondering – what is my role during this time? What can I do to help? We have answers – and resources – to make your child’s b’nei mitzvah experience special for the entire family.

About three years before your child’s 13th birthday, you and your child will attend the first of three b’nei mitzvah family programs. There you’ll receive a date request form, beginning a journey that culminates in a beautiful (and often teary) passing of the Torah from you to your child on our bimah.

Our second family program – a Shabbat service and dinner – occurs when your child is in fifth grade. The goal is to help students and families better understand the flow of our service and liturgy.

The final family program takes place in sixth grade, when you and your child learn about mitzvah projects and why they are an important part of this journey. At this program, you will also be introduced to the most important passages in the book of the Bible that your child will read from on the day of the b’nei mitzvah.

One magical spring day about three years before your child’s 13th birthday, you will go to your mailbox and find a letter from Washington Hebrew Congregation addressed to your child with their b’nei mitzvah date. Receiving this letter means that your child will now officially begin preparing for their b’nei mitzvah!

It’s still a few years away, but why wait to celebrate? … Maybe you’ll attend Shabbat services and imagine how it will feel three years from now, enjoy a festive Shabbat dinner with extended family, or look up and talk about your child’s Torah portion. There are so many wonderful ways in which to recognize this occasion; we hope that your celebration will be something you always remember.

While some families will naturally begin to think about the social aspects of this special milestone, we urge you to focus on the importance of the growth and development your child will make during the b’nei mitzvah process. We know you have been looking forward to this moment for a long time. We wish you a hearty mazel tov and look forward to preparing for and celebrating this simcha with you and your family!

Preparing for the b’nei mitzvah can feel overwhelming, but our clergy treasure the bonds that are formed with the student and their family during this special time and will give your child the individual attention they need to feel ready. We look forward to working with your child and your family as you approach this wonderful milestone!

About 6 months before the big day: Our cantor’s office and tutors will contact you to arrange your child’s tutoring schedule.

5 months away: individual tutoring begins. Your child and their tutor will have 12 weekly 30-minute appointments. We adjust tutoring schedules to avoid conflicts with summer, winter, or spring breaks and encourage you to attend the tutoring sessions if you are able.

2 months to go: Once your child has completed tutoring, they will meet four times with one of the rabbis or cantors who will be with them on the bimah at their b’nei mitzvah. During these weekly half-hour appointments, the clergy will get to know your child, help them polish the reading of their Torah, Haftarah, and prayers, and guide them to understand their Torah portion so that they can write their d’var Torah (words of Torah).

1 month to go: Hour-long rehearsals in the chapel or sanctuary begin. If your child has a b’nei mitzvah partner, the partner will be there too. The same rabbi or cantor who has been working with your child for the past month will focus on getting them comfortable with the space, the microphones, and speaking slowly and loudly. They will explain and rehearse the service with your child, practicing the Hebrew and English prayers, Torah portion, and Haftarah portion, their d’var Torah, and the prayer they will lead during the Friday evening service. We encourage you to join us for these rehearsals.

1 week to go: The final rehearsal prior to the b’nei mitzvah will be with your child’s partner and both sets of parents. We ask you to be there so that you can also feel comfortable in the space and practice your parts, i.e. Torah blessings, removing the Torah from and returning it to the Ark, passing the Torah, and knowing when and where to stand and walk.

Resources for B’nei Mitzvah Students

Learning the Blessings

During the weekend of your b’nei mitzvah, you will participate in both our Friday evening Shabbat and Saturday Shabbat services. Practicing the prayers in advance with your tutor and at home with your family will help you recite them successfully and with confidence.

Click on a link below to download a pdf of the prayer. Each pdf has an icon that you can click on to hear Cantor Bortnick chant it as well.

Shabbat Kiddush



G’vurot (summer – recited from the beginning of Passover through the last day of Sukkot)

G’vurot (winter – recited from the last day of Sukkot through the beginning of Passover)

Torah Blessings

Blessing Before the Haftarah

Blessing After the Haftarah

Studying Your Torah Portion

Studying your Torah portion doesn’t have to be intimidating or scary. We are here to introduce you to the basics of the Torah and will help you get your studying off to a great start.

The Torah is the first part of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanach), which is followed by the Prophets and the Writings. The stories and laws in the Torah are roughly 3,500 years old. The Torah is made up of the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The Book of Genesis (B’reishit) begins with the story of creation. As God says, “Let there be light!” and affirms that we live in a good world. We read about Adam and Eve and their children, Cain and Abel. The stories continue with Noah and the Flood as well as the Tower of Babel. Then the focus shifts from these earth-shaking events to the later stories of one man, Abraham. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel are the protagonists of the rest of the stories, telling the deeds of our ancestors. Each of these men and women are nomads, wandering the land that God promises them, each with their own personal visions and relationship with God. The longest story is the tale of Joseph and his brothers, the children of Jacob. The Book of Genesis ends with the children of Jacob in the land of Egypt, having traveled there for food to survive a famine. They settle there and grow numerous.

The Book of Exodus (Sh’mot) resumes the tale of the children of Jacob, now called the Israelites. A new Pharaoh comes to power in Egypt and enslaves all of the Israelites. God selects a deliverer, Moses, to confront Pharaoh and liberate the people. After ten plagues, Moses, with his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam, leads the Israelites out of Egypt. They are pursued by Pharaoh and his army. Through a miracle, they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land while Pharaoh and his army are caught in the waters and drown.

Newly freed, the Israelites then proceed to Mount Sinai where they watch Moses ascend the mountain to speak to God. While he is gone, they lose faith that he will return and they build a golden calf as an object of worship. When Moses returns down the mountain with two tablets proclaiming the Ten Commandments, he expresses God’s rage and destroys the tablets and the idol. After the people repent, Moses returns to God on top of the mountain and carves a new set of tablets. The people also build a sanctuary for God, a portable tent called a Tabernacle. As they leave Mount Sinai, God’s presence rests above the tent in the form of a cloud. With them are the tablets of the law and the many other commandments that Moses reveals to the people.

The middle book of the Torah, Leviticus (Vayikra), examines the laws and rules for those who serve in God’s sanctuary, the Tabernacle, which serves as a paradigm for those later in history who would serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. The priests (cohanim) and Levites facilitate the people’s worship of God. Among the topics listed here are all of the holidays as well as daily offerings in the form of sacrifices. Other laws, such as rules to leave food for the poor and protections for widows and strangers, are also listed in detail. The most famous statement in Leviticus is: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

Beginning with a census of the Israelites, Numbers (Bamidbar) tells the story of the Israelites as they travel through the wilderness towards the Land of Israel, the Promised Land. The challenges resume when Moses and God attempt to prepare the Israelites to invade the Land of Israel and take it from the idolatrous nations, known for, among other things, child sacrifice. After sending spies to scout out the land, however, the people balk at the idea of invading. They lack faith and courage in their mission. For this reason, this generation, raised in slavery in Egypt, will live the rest of their lives wandering in the wilderness. It will be their children, raised as nomads, who will have the strength to stand up and fight.

The trials of the Israelites in the wilderness follow a pattern. The Israelites were rescued by God from Egypt, but they remain devout so long as everything is going well. At the beginning of any kind of hardship, they lose faith and complain that life was better back in Egypt. In response, God stops protecting them. They discover how bad life could really be as they meet with only more catastrophe made worse by God’s withdrawal. When they repent, however, the people find God’s providence restored. In this way, the Israelites face the challenges of thirst, fire, and wild beasts, as well as the internal strife of rebellion. As the generation of slaves passes away, the new generation, led by Joshua, prepares to assume their inheritance.

Deuteronomy (D’varim) consists of three speeches that Moses gives to the Israelites at the border of the Promised Land that they are about to invade and claim for their own. Moses stresses that their relationship to the land depends upon their relationship with God. If they follow all of God’s commandments, they will enjoy abundance and blessing. If they rebel against God, they will endure suffering and curses, and they will eventually be exiled. Moses declares the unity of God with the words, “Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one!” and cautions the Israelites not to imitate the practices of the idolatrous nations they are fighting. Moses tells them that free will is given to each of them—that before each of them lay life and blessing, death and curse. He begs them to choose life that they and their descendants will live for a long time in the land of their ancestors. Moses dies, not able to enter the Promised Land himself.

  1. Read your Torah portion in English.  In which book is it found? Which chapter and which verses? (A biblical citation looks like this: Genesis 1:27-28. “Genesis” is the book. “1” is the chapter. And “27-28” are the verses or lines.)
  2. Once you have found the book, chapter and verses, read the summary of the book of the Torah above. What is the literary context of the passage? What happened just before? What happens afterwards?
  3. Write a summary of the Torah portion in your own words, as if you are explaining it to someone who has never heard of the Torah before. Be sure to explain the who, what, when, where, and why of the passage.
  4. Now that you understand what the Torah is saying, try to figure out what the Torah means. What lesson(s) do you think the Torah might be teaching? Remember that all of the stories in the Torah are parables, meaning that they are like fables that have a moral. What do the different things in the story symbolize?
  5. What is the historical context of the passage? What is the same about the historical times then and now? What is different?
  6. Find out from your rabbi or cantor what Judaism has to say about this passage. Many people have written commentaries about the Torah. Ask about these commentaries. In addition, ask if there are any practices today that Jews observe that emphasize this passage.
  7. Does the passage from the Torah remind you of anything personal in your life? In the life of your family? What do you think the Torah is trying to teach you?

The D’var Torah

After you read from the Torah and Haftarah (the book of Prophets), you will read a d’var Torah (literally, “words of Torah”) that you’ve written, explaining part of your Torah portion and how it is meaningful for us today.

You will have plenty of time and guidance as you write your d’var Torah.

Here’s an overview of what’s included in a d’var Torah:

Part 1: A summary of your Torah portion in your own words.

Part 2: You’ll teach the congregation something about your Torah portion. Emphasize a specific point in the Torah portion and relate it to yourself, the congregation, and/or the times in which we live. Show us what we can learn from this portion – in other words, give us the moral. You may then go a step further and give the congregation an opportunity to follow through on the lesson by giving specific examples of what they can do to fulfill your message.

Part 3: You’ll share what it means to you to become a b’nei mitzvah. If you performed a Mitzvah Project, mention it and the lessons learned along the way, as well as the positive feelings it enabled you to experience.

Part 4: It’s time to officially and publicly thank the people who helped you achieve this milestone. Remember, you do not need to thank everyone by name. Also, if it applies to you, don’t forget to congratulate your partner in this section. (This should be the shortest section of your speech!)

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! And remember…

We hold Early Torah Study every Saturday morning at 9:00 am, and everyone is welcome. There’s no background knowledge or familiarity with Hebrew needed to participate. At Friday evening and Saturday morning Shabbat services, our clergy always give a sermon that illustrates how the Torah lives in our time.

Take advantage of the many educational opportunities the Temple offers!

Mitzvah Project Ideas

The Mitzvah Project can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. When choosing a Mitzvah Project, we recommend that you look for something about which you are passionate. Brainstorming as a family can help you find a meaningful choice for your project. It can also allow your family to embark upon the project together, adding more meaning to the b’nei mitzvah process.

To help you on your journey, we have collected a list of Mitzvah Project ideas. For more project ideas, visit themitzvahbowl.com or read The Mitzvah Project Book by Liz Suneby and Diane Heiman.

  • Volunteer to spend time with residents of a local retirement home
  • Record books and donate recordings and books to a school or library
  • Make blankets and donate them to organizations like Children’s National Medical Center
  • Create and perform a socio-drama, teaching kids about the economics of poverty in America
  • Toiletry Collection: collect hotel-size items to be donated to shelters, camps, or areas affected by natural disasters
  • Collect money or toys to be donated to a children’s hospital or local shelter
  • Organize a Mini-Mitzvah Day
  • Organize a food drive for a local food distribution program
  • Raise money for a medical foundation
  • Donate time, money or needed items to an animal hospital or shelter
  • Create scholarships at a university or community college
  • Organize a team and walk for a specific cause
  • Feed the firemen at your local fire station dinner
  • Collect and donate various items to a school or shelter, i.e. sports equipment/helmets or musical instruments
  • Raise money for a specific cause through a bake sale or read-a-thon

  • Remember Us: remember a child lost in the Holocaust through this special B’nei Mitzvah project
  • Holocaust Twinning through the US Holocaust Memorial Museum: remember a child lost through the Holocaust by working with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum; contact Nesse Godin, 301-593-7285, or Sam Spiegel, 301-881-2454
  • Stumbling Stones: raise money for this German organization that creates small, cobblestone-sized memorials for the victims of Nazism

  • Write letters to Israeli or American Soldiers or support organizations that help wounded soldiers and their families
  • The Yellow Ribbon Fund: raise money or volunteer by talking to injured service members or organizing a special event for injured service members and their families
  • Wounded Warrior Project: support wounded service members, veterans, and their families by raising money, creating an awareness campaign, or volunteering at an event

A Cause for Celebration

A b’nei mitzvah is a time to celebrate, and Washington Hebrew Congregation has beautiful facilities both at Temple and the Julia Bindeman Suburban Center at which you can host your celebration.

We can accommodate groups large and small for private Shabbat dinners, Kiddush luncheons, and afternoon or evening receptions. Our event coordinators are happy to provide you with information about all of our spaces.

Find out more about our facilities

Frequently Asked Questions

As you embark on the b’nei mitzvah process with your family, you may find that you have a lot of questions. We’re here with answers to alleviate your concerns.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation commences approximately 24 weeks prior to the b’nei mitzvah. Your child’s tutor will contact you at that time to arrange the 12 weeks of individual appointments with one of our tutors.  A month later, 20 weeks prior to the b’nei mitzvah, your child will begin these weekly individual appointments. After 12 weeks, your child will be assigned to a rabbi or cantor with whom s/he will work for the remaining 8 weeks prior to the b’nei mitzvah. The 8 weeks consist of 4 weeks of 30- minute individual appointments and 4 weeks of hour-long sanctuary/chapel rehearsals with the same rabbi/cantor. If the student has a partner, the final 4 weeks of sanctuary/chapel rehearsals are with the partner.

Please note: Adjustments are made to the schedule in the event that a student’s training is to span the summer, winter, or spring vacations.

Your child will participate in both the Friday evening Shabbat service, as well as the b’nei mitzvah service.  For the Friday evening Shabbat service, your child will take part in the Kiddush at the end of the service, which will require your child to prepare the Shabbat Kiddush. For the b’nei mitzvah service, your child will prepare the V’ahavta, the Avot, the G’vurot, the Torah blessings, the Haftarah blessings, and the assigned Torah and Haftarah portions. All of this will be covered in their sessions with the tutor; however, to best prepare your child, it is required that s/he attend religious school regularly beginning in 3rd grade when s/he will begin Hebrew.

At Washington Hebrew Congregation, we do not require our students to do a Mitzvah Project. That said, we do highly recommend that the students do a project in honor of their b’nei mitzvah, and this is the focus of one of our b’nei mitzvah meetings in the years prior to the b’nei mitzvah. Almost every one of our b’nei mitzvah children choose to do a Mitzvah Project and find this to be a very rewarding and satisfying part of the b’nei mitzvah process.

At the Friday evening Shabbat service on the weekend of your child’s b’nei mitzvah, one parent of the weekend’s b’nei mitzvah will be called upon to lead the congregation in the blessing over the Shabbat candles. Towards the end of the service, your child will be called to the bimah by a Washington Hebrew Congregation board member to receive the Kamy Loren Nathanson Kiddush Cup along with the other b’nei mitzvah of the weekend. Finally, the other parent of the b’nei mitzvah will join the clergy in sitting on the bimah.

At the b’nei mitzvah service, you, the parents, will join your child in sitting on the bimah. During the Torah service, you will have the opportunity to give your child a blessing as you pass the Torah to him/her. This parent prayer should be no more than one page, 14 pt. font, double spaced, even if both parents are speaking. Other roles for you family include reciting the blessings over the Torah (aliyah).

Prior to your b’nei mitzvah weekend, you and your child will be expected to usher at a service, approximately one month prior to your b’nei mitzvah date. If you are having a morning service, we ask that you usher at a morning service; if you are having an afternoon/Havdalah service, we ask that you usher at an afternoon/Havdalah service. This will help you to better understand the roles you will be playing in just a few short weeks. There will be a staff usher from Washington Hebrew Congregation present to explain your role and duties as an usher. To aid in this process, you will need to arrive 15 minutes prior to the start of the service on the day that your family is to usher.  We, of course, welcome you to usher after your own simcha, as your help is always needed!

The Torah portion read by your child will be divided into three sections, known as aliyot (plural of aliyah; a section comprised of at least three verses of Torah). Each aliyah is preceded and followed by a blessing. Your child will chant the blessing before and after the first aliyah. This leaves two aliyot, each with a blessing before and a blessing after. We invite you to honor your family by asking them to chant or read these blessings.

Click here for a copy of the Torah blessings.

The parents’ prayer is given just before you pass the Torah to your child. When writing this blessing, keep in mind that your child has not yet chanted his/her Torah portion. The parent prayer is an opportunity for you to tell your child how proud you are of him/her and what you wish for his/her future. Both parents are welcome to speak, however the maximum page length is one page, 14 pt. font, double spaced.

For examples, please click here.

Having a b’nei mitzvah partner is a wonderful opportunity for your family and your child to create new and lasting relationships with another Washington Hebrew Congregation family. When we assign the b’nei mitzvah dates every year, all of our children are paired with a partner in order for us to accommodate all of our new adults. Due to various circumstances (i.e. families moving, health issues), some of our students may end up without a partner, however most of our b’nei mitzvah celebrate their ceremony with a partner.

As Reform Jews, the wearing of ritual items (i.e. tallit, kippah) are a matter of personal choice. We support any decision you and/or your child makes in this regard.

The dress code for those who will join us on the bimah is as follows:

For ladies, including our young adults who are celebrating their Bat Mitzvah, we remind you that modesty should be considered and conservative suits and dresses are the appropriate wear. Shoulders and knees should be covered at all times while in the sanctuary or chapel, plunging necklines should be avoided and formal wear is not appropriate for services.  Please also remind your guests that shoulders should be covered for the service and dresses should reach the knees.

For gentleman, including our young adults who are celebrating their Bar Mitzvah, conservative suits are appropriate. Black tie attire is never appropriate dress for congregational services.

Friday evening Shabbat services begin promptly at 6:00 pm. Please make sure to call the Temple before making arrangements for a family dinner to confirm the time of the service. We also recommend calling a month prior to the service to reconfirm as changes occasionally are made to the service schedule. Your family will need to arrive 15 minutes prior to the start of the service when you will meet in Rabbi Shankman’s study.

Saturday morning Shabbat services begin promptly at 10:30 am and end around noon The b’nei mitzvah families should arrive no later than 9:30 am when they will meet in the Rabbi’s study. Please request that your guests arrive a few minutes before the service begins so they may seat themselves prior to the start of the service.

Saturday afternoon Shabbat/Havdalah services begin promptly at 5:00 pm and end around 6:30 pm. The b’nei mitzvah families should arrive no later than 5:00 pm when they will meet in the Rabbi’s study. Please request that your guests arrive a few minutes before the service begins so they may seat themselves prior to the start of the service.

Yes!! Recording equipment is allowed; however, it must not disturb the service in any way and therefore we have important policies regarding recording equipment and cameras at our services.

Videos and photographs by professional videographers and photographers are allowed from the balcony of the Kaufmann Sanctuary and in the back of the Albert and Shirley Small Chapel. The videographer and photographer must be stationary in a single spot throughout the service so as not to distract from the service. Also, flash photography is not permitted nor are extra lights for a video. If you choose to take pictures ahead of time, either before the service or before or after a rehearsal, you will need to coordinate your time with one of the Rabbinic Assistants. Please call 202-362-7100 in advance to schedule your appointment.

Please contact the Cantor’s Office at 202-895-6309 for specific questions regarding your child’s b’nei mitzvah.  


Kasia Kurleto Spadano
Cantorial Office Manager and B’nei Mitzvah Coordinator