Motivations for Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah

Although not associated with puberty, this rite represents a spiritual "coming of age" for adult Jews.

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By contrast, Susan was already studying for her bat mitzvah at her suburban New York synagogue at the time she became Jewish. "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."

Ron revised his thinking about religion in his mid-20s. "I had rediscovered my Judaism, and I had rediscovered my belief in God," he said. "I think the experience of going through [bar mitzvah] when it meant something to me personally and spiritually was so much richer than it might have been doing it as a stupid 13-year-old kid."

Sue had chosen summer camp over the type of bat mitzvah girls in most Conservative synagogues were offered in the 1960s. She decided, after losing a husband to cancer at age 22 and finding solace in an egalitarian congregation, that "I finally felt like a grown-up and it was time to make a public proclamation to that effect with a bat mitzvah."

Jane, who was 25 when she celebrated her bat mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue, said she doesn't need to rebel any more. Her mother, whose family was "not that religious" when she was growing up, will share the day with Jane, in part to set an example of Jewish commitment for Jane's seven-year-old sister.

David says his bar mitzvah at age 42 wasn't the culmination of a spiritual quest but was more about identity. "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."

Studying Together Creates Community

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, learning Hebrew and the skills needed to conduct part of the service, and analyzing the relevant Torah portion. Studies can also include Torah chanting, haftarah (a reading from the prophetic books), theology, and Jewish history and tradition. The ceremony may be a solo effort or a shared experience among the members of a class.

"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 called the friendships that formed in her class "the icing on the cake. The eight of us remain friends and are there for each other in good times and bad."

"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."

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Ellen Jaffe-Gill

Ellen Jaffe Gill is the author of Embracing the Stranger (Basic Books).