Campus & Community

Hillel opens Bar/Bat Mitzvah Institute

4 min read

Organization is for more than just college students

Rabbi Norman Janis: ‘We’re inviting people into our home at Harvard Hillel and letting them know that this is a great place to have a bar or bat mitzvah.’ (Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Zachary Levine-Caleb is just 12 years old, but he loves studying at Harvard.

For several months, he’s been preparing for his bar mitzvah at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Institute, a new and unique program that’s bringing more people to campus and attracting young families to the Worship & Study Congregation. This congregation is one of several Jewish prayer communities based out of Harvard Hillel’s Mt. Auburn Street headquarters.

“I’m getting a lot out of the program,” says Levine-Caleb, who will be called to the Torah for the Jewish coming-of-age ritual in January 2006. “The teachers are very knowledgeable, and it’s cool to meet new kids.”

He’ll be meeting a lot more kids this coming year, when the congregation welcomes new families to a special open house this Oct. 15 – the first Shabbat of the Jewish new year.

“We will be specially introducing ourselves to new congregants and telling them about the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Institute,” says Worship & Study Congregation Rabbi Norman Janis.

“We’re inviting people into our home at Harvard Hillel and letting them know that this is a great place to have a bar or bat mitzvah,” he says. “Often people are frightened of Harvard – it’s intimidating, and people don’t think of it as a place for people of all ages. We’re getting the word out that this is a place for everyone.”

Harvard Hillel is the catalyst for Jewish life at Harvard, serving the cultural, religious, educational, social, and political need of all segments of the undergraduate and graduate Jewish student communities. In addition, Harvard faculty, staff, and the general public are welcome and encouraged to participate and join in Hillel’s activities, one of which is the Worship & Study Congregation.

Founded in the early 1970s, the Worship & Study Congregation is small, with just 50-60 people on an average Saturday morning. Several hundred attend services there during the Jewish High Holy Days. The congregation is a gateway into Judaism, welcoming the knowledgeable and those who are discovering themselves as Jews. It prides itself on being participatory, egalitarian, and intergenerational.

Since the beginning, the congregation at Harvard Hillel has welcomed young people and their families on the journey toward becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

“Some of our young people are the children of Harvard professors; some are the children of community people with no connection to Harvard,” says Janis. “Whatever their background the congregation welcomes young people to worship and study with us, finds them tutors – Harvard undergraduates, usually – and we rejoice with them and their families when bar/bat mitzvah day arrives. It’s truly a joy for the congregation when we see a child emerge from this ritual as a young adult.”

The more formalized Bar/Bat Institute started as a pilot program last year. This year marks its second successful year, complete with private tutoring and weekly peer discussions.

The intimacy and inclusiveness of the congregation, as well as the new institute, is exactly why Levine-Caleb’s mother is choosing to have her son become bar mitzvah there. “It’s a small congregation where everybody knows everybody,” says Randi Levine, whose younger son Phil will also have his bar mitzvah there when he comes of age. “I like that we’re among a community of people we’ve known for years and who take an interest in my children.”

Levine-Caleb is looking forward to having his celebration at Harvard. Unintimidated by being on the Ivy League campus, he says, “I would recommend the program to others.”

Interested families can arrive at about 10 a.m. for the special Oct. 15 welcome. More information about having a bar/bat mitzvah at Harvard Hillel is available online at