May 11, 2000
Called to the Torah
The reasons to pursue adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah are as varied as the Jews who pursue them.
"I think the experience of going through [Bar Mitzvah] when it meant something to me personally and spiritually... was so much richer an experience than it might have been doing it as a stupid 13-year-old kid." - Ron, almost 30 at the time of his Bar Mitzvah
Most media reports of adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah tend to focus on people of a certain age: women old enough to have grown up when females had no ritual purpose on the bimah of any synagogue, who could not imagine as girls being called to the Torah, and 83-year-old men who celebrate a second Bar Mitzvah having lived a "life span" of threescore and 10 years after the first, much as actor Kirk Douglas did last year.
But adult Bar and Bat Mitzvahs happen at many ages and for many reasons. It isn't a mandatory rite of passage; by Jewish law, a boy reaches adulthood when he turns 13 and a girl at 12, no ceremony required. (An adult convert to Judaism, therefore, is a bar or bat mitzvah as soon as the conversion is finalized.) The very lack of necessity makes an adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah even more remarkable as a concrete, hard-won, and public affirmation of Jewish identity and commitment.
Most of the reasons that Jews don't have Bar or Bat Mitzvahs when they're children fall into two broad categories: couldn't or didn't want to. "I was feeling kind of atheistic at that point in my life," said Ron, a Los Angeles film producer who grew up in a Conservative synagogue on Long Island. "I remember talking with the other boys at my temple and asking them what they felt and why they were being Bar Mitzvahed, and to a one, they all said they were doing it for a big party and lots of presents. And I just felt at that point that, not having the religious conviction, I didn't want to go through this religious ceremony just to have a party and presents. It felt very hypocritical to me."
"My parents were not at all religious... and they just didn't believe in having a Bar Mitzvah," said David, a Toronto businessman raised in Queens by "left-wing Jewish educators," themselves the children of trade unionists. "In my family circle of friends, [not having a Bar Mitzvah] wasn't unusual. It wasn't an issue for me." The spiritual alienation felt at 13 by Jane, a Los Angeles copy editor, came from a different source. "That was right when my parents got divorced, and I hated them," she said. "I didn't feel very religious at that point."
A woman doesn't have to be past 50 for Bat Mitzvah not to have been an option in her girlhood. A Bat Mitzvah ceremony comparable to a boy's, in which the girl reads from Torah and haftarah and leads part of the Shabbat morning service, is a relatively recent development in Conservative Judaism, and only now are a number of centrist Orthodox synagogues offering girls a form of Bat Mitzvah, held on Friday night, that does not involve reading from the Torah. Lisa, who grew up Orthodox in the 1960s and 1970s, expressed regret that she wasn't able to have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony - "I really see it as something I missed out on" - and is weighing the option of sharing her daughter's Bat Mitzvah in a few years against scheduling one sooner for herself.
Converts to Judaism, who of course weren't Jewish at 12 and 13, form a natural and ever-expanding source of adult Bar and Bat Mitzvah candidates. Joe, a vice president at his Reform temple on Cape Cod, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at age 45, 13 years after his conversion. "In those 13 years, I had become a Jew.... Clearly it was time for me to take the next step. Previously, there never seemed to be enough time, but also, I wanted to set an example for my children, and they weren't old enough until recently to appreciate (or remember) such an event." On the personal level, Joe adds, "I wanted a deeper understanding and appreciation for my chosen religion."
By contrast, Susan was already studying for her Bat Mitzvah at her suburban New York synagogue at the time she became Jewish. "The B'nai Mitzvah class was a logical step for me as the new kid on the block. I needed and wanted to know more. ...As a Jew, I have the right to embrace all that this religion has to offer, and I have every intention of doing just that."
For a Jew who passed up the opportunity to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as an adolescent, the decision to pursue one as an adult often marks a turning point in his or her spiritual or psychological development. Sue, a Jewish day school graduate from Philadelphia who chose summer camp over the type of Bat Mitzvah girls in most Conservative synagogues were offered 30-odd years ago, lost a husband to cancer when she was "a very young 22-year-old." She found solace in an egalitarian congregation in Toledo, Ohio, led by a Conservative rabbi and, after a couple of years, told the rabbi "that I finally felt like a grown-up and it was time to make a public proclamation to that effect with a Bat Mitzvah."
Ron revised his thinking about religion in his mid-20's. "I had rediscovered my Judaism, and I had rediscovered my belief in God," he said. His sister had had a Bat Mitzvah ceremony at 30: "I remember thinking, 'Before I'm 30, I want to have a Bar Mitzvah.' As I reached my late 20's, I realized, well, if I'm going to achieve that goal, it's now or never." Jane, who will be 25 when she celebrates her Bat Mitzvah in June, doesn't need to rebel any more. "I'm just making my own choice that it's something I really want to do." Jane's mother, whose family was "not that religious" when she was growing up, jumped into the preparations and will share the day with Jane, in part to set an example of Jewish commitment for Jane's 7-year-old sister.
David, whose upbringing was nonreligious, says his Bar Mitzvah at age 42 wasn't the culmination of a spiritual quest; for him, the pull toward the bimah was more about identity in a city where Jews are more of a minority than they were in the New York of his youth. "I felt I needed to read from the Torah; I felt it was something that I didn't do as a youngster, and that being Jewish and having a Jewish identity was important to me," David said. "As much as I will deny having any type of spiritual connection, I have to say that reading from the Torah was a magical experience."
Adults who pursue Bar or Bat Mitzvah generally study in a synagogue-based class or one-on-one with a rabbi, sometimes for a year or more. While some prospective b'nai mitzvah come to class with Hebrew skills, many, if not most, are learning or relearning Hebrew from scratch. Studies also include analysis of the specific Torah texts involved and skills needed to conduct part of the service, and can include Torah chant, haftarah (the weekly passage from the prophets recited in many synagogues on Shabbat morning), theology, and Jewish traditions and history. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah itself may be a solo effort, with a single adult leading part of the worship, reading Torah, and presenting a short speech, or it may be a shared experience among the members of a B'nai Mitzvah class.
The process of study is part of the pleasure. "I enjoyed sitting around the table with the rabbi and the other students discussing different aspects of Judaism and Torah and Hebrew," Ron said. Susan, whose 10-month class started with 22 participants and was winnowed to eight women by the end, called the friendships that formed in the class "the icing on the cake... The eight of us remain friends and are there for each other in good times and bad."
Adult Bar and Bat Mitzvahs bring together not only proud families but entire communities. "The event was one of the most joyous and fulfilling experiences of my life," Joe said of his class's ceremony. Along with families and friends, he said, the hall "was packed with... members of the congregation who came just because it was an important event that they wanted to witness. Many parents came with their children.""My family was very supportive, and my husband's family was glowing! My children were so proud - the best feeling of all," Susan reported, calling the enormous turnout "truly a community celebration." But just as important, she said, her Bat Mitzvah didn't represent the end of a path, but a milestone in her journey as a learner. "The class served as a wonderful overview of this religion, but it's only the tip of the iceberg," she told the congregation from the bimah. "My education has just begun."