I remember clearly the first time I was called by my newly acquired Hebrew name to say the Torah blessings on Rosh Hashanah. I was in my early 40s and just beginning to discover my own heritage. Who knew that Judaism could be so complex, so compelling, so enriching? I was learning how much I didn’t know, and it was thrilling.
When I was in seventh grade I was so happy to be a girl. The Jewish boys in my class complained often about their afternoons of Hebrew studies and preparation for becoming a Bar Mitzvah. My family was not very connected to Jewish life so I didn’t actually know what was involved, or what exactly a Bar Mitzvah was, but I sure was glad I didn’t have to do it! I grew up ahead of the Jewish feminist curve, so I was “spared” becoming a Bat Mitzvah. In retrospect, this was less of a blessing than I thought at the time.
A Jewish boy or girl becomes responsible for observing the mitzvot, or Jewish obligations, when he or she reaches a certain age. According to the Talmud, the age for boys is 13 years and a day, for girls 12 years and a day (although many synagogues now use age 13 for both).
At this age the boy or girl is no longer considered a child by Jewish law, but an adult. This happens automatically, without ceremony. However it is customary that he (and now she) publicly demonstrates this coming of age at a Shabbat service by saying the blessings before and after the Torah reading, and also reading from the Torah itself. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah also might lead some of the prayers, read the Haftarah, and offer an interpretation of the Torah portion.
Those of us who help young people prepare for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah earnestly try to make this occasion meaningful for this “young adult,” but all too often the preparation for the Big Day, and the day itself, lose their significance among the competing demands for a pre-teen’s attention and time: school, sports, music lessons, and the focus on the celebration party afterward. In addition, it is a rare person who, at that age, can appreciate the larger meaning of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as it is happening.
In retrospect, I see that I was part of a new group: Jews who, as adults, want to find deeper connection to Judaism through learning Hebrew, studying, and demonstrating to themselves and their community that they have the competence to be fully engaged participants in their synagogue and the Jewish world.
How fortunate we are to live during a time when many synagogues have “adult” B’nai Mitzvah programs. In fact, this very evening, June 4, five members of M’kor Hayim from a variety of backgrounds will stand before our congregation, and their families and friends, to celebrate a year of learning and deepened connection to their heritage. They will demonstrate their knowledge of Torah, Hebrew, Jewish values and prayers.
This event celebrates the culmination of much work and study, but is also the beginning of the next step. One member of the group wrote: “This experience has been just the start of my journey to learn about Judaism and my identity as a Jew.”
As we mature and our view of the world expands, we come to appreciate how rich and fulfilling Judaism can be. There are many opportunities in our community to continue learning and growing as a Jew. I invite you to consider what your next step will be. Who knows? Perhaps it will be to become an adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah!