My mother-in-law celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah this morning at the unconventional age of none of your business. It was a pleasure to see her on the bimah swelling with pride as she made a bold statement about being a full and commited member of the Jewish people, along with nine other adults from her congregation.
Adult B'nei Mitzvah has become a standard offering at many Reform congregations. Most participants are people who, for one reason or another, never had a chance to celebrate becoming a bar or bat mitzvah as thirteen-year-olds. Some, like my mother-in-law, grew up in an era when bat mitzvah was not an option for Jewish girls. Some are people who converted to Judaism as adults, who weren't even Jewish when they were thirteen.
However, since the "bar/bat mitzvah ceremony" has become such a mainstay of the Jewish lifecycle, adult Jews who did not get bar or bat mitzvah celebrations as kids feel that there is something missing from their Jewish identity. They want to turn back the clock and have some kind of ritual in which they can declare, finally, "Today I am recognized as an adult member of the Jewish community." In almost every case, they really are declaring that they see themselves as adult Jews.
Yet, as much as these Jewish adults wish to capture the experience they missed when they were kids, the ceremonies they create as adults, to me, have a totally different feeling from the thirteen-year-old version of the ritual. You never think at an adult b'nei mitzvah celebration about the possibility that the participants are just doing it because their parents forced them into it. You never feel that the ritual is just an excuse for a party. You never worry that these b'nei mitzvah are going to drop out of Jewish communal life as soon as the celebration is over. How could they?
Adult b'nei mitzvah clearly are looking for an opportunity to embrace something important in their lives. The statements they make in front of their congregations are unimpeachably sincere. They want to declare how important it is for them to be Jews. They want to shout out to the universe how much they are committed to being part of the Jewish people for the rest of their lives. Of course, there also are thirteen-year-old boys and girls who make similar, earnest declarations at their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, but we can never be certain that they will keep those convictions into adulthood. With "adult b'nei mitzvah," we see with certainty that they are in it for life.
In some way, "Adult B'nei Mitzvah" is an entirely different kind of ritual from the celebration of a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy or girl. Maybe, it is a ritual that should not be limited to those adults who did not have the childhood version of the bar or bat mitzvah experience. Maybe it is something we should consider for all adult Jews who wish to make a renewed commitment to Jewish identity and Jewish living at later stages of their lives.
I am planning on offering an "Adult B'nei Mitzvah" class at my congregation this coming year. As I think about my mother-in-law and the nine other adult b'nei mitzvah this morning at Temple Isaiah of Lexington, Massachusetts, I think about the ways I can help other Jewish adults create a ritual for themselves that will reflect their need to declare themselves committed, adult Jews. It does not have to be the same kind of ritual we make for our thirteen-year-olds. It has to be a moment that allows all Jewish adults who are willing to step beyond the religious experiences (or non-experiences) of their childhoods and discover an authentic way of being fully Jewish as they are right now.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Holy Bar Mitzvah
Writing a Word of Torah