In MaryAnne Howland’s forthcoming memoir, “Warrior Rising: How Four Men Helped a Boy on His Journey to Manhood,” she tells the story of the “Black Mitzvah,” or rite of passage celebration, she organized for her son Max upon his 13th birthday when she invited an engineer, a philanthropist, a publisher and a financial planner over for mentorship.
“I hope that this book inspires parents and communities to more deeply commit and engage in the care and development of our children, to remind us that it takes a village to raise a child,” she told TNJ.com in a recent interview. “This books provides a roadmap to how to be proactive in enlisting and engaging the support of friends, family, and community in helping to do what is so difficult to do alone, raise healthy, happy, secure adults. If you are interested in creating a Black Mitzvah for your own son or daughter, the last chapter provides step-by-step guidelines on how I did it and encourages anyone who wants to do it to use their own resources and creativity. That’s what makes it so powerful.”
Here, we talk more with Howland about the inspiration behind the book.
TNJ.com: Tell me a bit about the rite of passage celebration you organized for your son.
MaryAnne Howland: I had never been to a Bar Mitzvah and still haven’t. All that I know about the tradition is from what I’ve heard others describe and what I’ve seen in movies and on television – big celebrations with lots of extended family, lots of food, dancing and the young celebrant dressed in a black suit as he read from the Torah. Through my conversations with Jewish friends, I learned that the Jewish rite of passage offered Jewish families so much more than the opportunity to throw a lavish party for their sons. The Bar Mitzvah helped to build a strong spiritual foundation for boys and to engender a sense of responsibility. Jewish boys also emerged from the ceremony with the strength of a promise that they had a village to support them for the rest of his lives. I thought it admirable, something that any young man could benefit from.
With the Bar Mitzvah serving as a sort of template, I set about planning my son’s Black Mitzvah, a rite of passage that I hoped would lead to lasting relationships with mighty men on whose shoulders he could stand. I wanted to build a community for Max — a reliable circle of men who he could emulate so that he would have a roadmap for becoming as brave and exceptional as they are.
Having found in the Torah a primary model of faith, community and accountability for my son’s rite of passage, I replaced it with the Bible, and began planning my son’s Black Mitzvah. Beyond an opening party, we planned a full schedule of male bonding activities, each designed to teach a lesson about purpose, service and community. A weekend of golf, gaming, boating, cooking, grilling, drenched in “trash talk” among men became the grounds for establishing the benchmark for which to measure the work my son needed to grow into the man he would become.
TNJ.com: Was there a strategy behind specifically having an engineer, philanthropist, publisher and financial planner present at the event, or did you simply want professionals on hand from a variety of industries?
Howland: Max and I set about choosing our Black Mitzvah mentors, by far the most important decision we had to make and one that I felt we needed to make together since they would essentially become a part of our family, as his “collective Dad.” We had to seriously consider their qualifications. Who amongst our male friends and family did Max admire most? Who did he look up to? It was important that each man was someone Max trusted and felt completely comfortable with. It was also important that these men reflected the values that I thought most important for my son to have: respect, righteousness and responsibility.
TNJ.com: Do you think more parents should consider having a rite of passage celebration for their kids?
Howland: I thought it important to demarcate for my own son the moment in which it had become necessary to take charge of his own life and to find his role in community. But I also wanted to give him more than just a rite of passage. I wanted to give him wind beneath his wings.
There were many aspects of the Bar Mitzvah that I admired and sought to incorporate into our own plan but the element that drew me the most was community celebration for boys as they embark on their journeys to adulthood and spiritual maturity. The three basic tenets that we established for a solid youth development support system are faith, community and accountability. It does not matter your marital status, what religion you practice, where you live, or what your circumstances, your child can have their own Black Mitzvah. All it takes is a little imagination and the commitment of a few men or women who role model the values that you believe in and would like to develop in your child.
TNJ.com: Did the event resonate with Max? If so, how has it changed him?
Howland: At nineteen, Max started believing in himself again. His proclamation at age three that he is “going to be great” resurfaced in the way he carries himself. Filled with opinions, ideas and plans for his future, he has the principles instilled in him by his mentors.
From Uncle Lawrence, he learned “boot camp” discipline in hygiene, etiquette, and social skills; from Uncle Chris, he learned the values of living in community; from Uncle Kevin, he learned entrepreneurship and humility; from Uncle Jay, he learned financial stewardship.
Through their mentorship, Max has evolved into a man who has respect for the need to be open to lessons to learn from everyday challenges in life, to be accountable for his own decisions, and most important, to always strive to be a better man.