Adult B’nai Mitzvah Gaining in Popularity

Back in the fall, Joyce Snyder toured Israel,steeping herself in the spirit of Torah.

But this, she felt, was not enough.

Six months later, she was standing in front of hercongregation, publicly chanting the words of the Torah.

It was all part of a journey that for her heldgreat spiritual meaning.

The b’nai mitzvahshe celebrated last month along with sixother men and women, made her life as a Jewish adult seem morecomplete.

While scholars argue about the origin of the adultbar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah) ceremony, there’s no question that overthe last two decades it has been growing in popularity, primarily forthose who had never undergone the ritual as a 13-year-old.

It’s a sign of our times that so many adults, menas well as women, are willing to admit they are clueless about basicJudaism, but that they want to learn — and they want a publicplatform to showcase their achievements.

For both the 13-year-old and the adult, a bar orbat mitzvah is a time to stand on the bimahtake one’s place among the Jewishpeople.

But while 13-year-olds normally go solo, mostadults approach the ritual in groups.

For some, the ceremony may be an end in itself,what Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisadescalls “a self-contained experience to fill a hole in theirlife.”

But a group b’nai mitzvah can be more than awell-rehearsed performance, staged on a one-time basis for admiringfamily and friends.

Rabbis see it as a path toward a long-rangecommitment to Jewish learning.

That’s why local Conservative, Reform andReconstructionist synagogues have devised curricula designed tocaptivate adults with the power of Jewish belief and practice.

The contents of these b’nai mitzvah courses vary.At Kehillat Israel, adult b’nai mitzvah candidates enroll in aonce-a-week class that runs from October to May.

Students begin with the alef bet (the alphabet), thenwork with Reuben on the tenets of Reconstructionist Judaism beforepreparing for their culmination service.

For Reuben, the learning that takes place is ofsecondary importance: “It’s more the spiritual connection that comesfrom it. The curriculum is almost incidental.”

Still, his message that Torah belongs to everyonehas seeped into the consciousness of at least some of his b’naimitzvah students, who have become enthusiastic participants in weeklyTorah study sessions.

The same appetite for Jewish study is seen inadult b’nai mitzvah candidates elsewhere.

After tackling Hebrew at Temple Beth Am, thecandidates willingly spend two years in adult educationcourses.

“The most exciting thing is the commitment tolearning these people have,” Rabbi Joel Rembaum says. “It is almostunquenchable.”

At age 12, Lee Wallach chose soccer over barmitzvah training.

Now, making up for lost time, he has joined apopular adult b’nai mitzvah class at Ohr Ha Torah, where RabbiMordecai Finley introduces his students to in-depth study of Jewishtexts and beliefs.

Wallach notes that when they turn to Hebrew,”Mordecai makes sure that we don’t just know what the squiggle is. Weknow the name of it. We know what it stands for.”

Finley’s b’nai mitzvah classes are unique indownplaying the culminating ceremony. No target date is set: thestudents’ primary goal is not to read Torah publicly (an honor thatFinley reserves for those who have attained high intellectual andmusical standards), but to gain a sophisticated familiarity withJewish practice.

It is no wonder that after a celebratorymincha service,many past students have continued on, as part of what Finley calls”B’nai Mitzvah II: The Sequel.”

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, an expert in Jewish women’srituals, feels today’s surge toward adult b’nai mitzvah derives fromour era’s interest in “feminist ritual exploration.”

Though most b’nai mitzvah services, includingthose she conducts at Makom Ohr Shalom, are egalitarian, some purelyfemale ceremonies do exist.

Last year, Hadassah of Southern California heldits first-ever b’not mitzvah ceremony for 28 women of all denominations.

They had studied for 10 months in small groupsacross the region before coming together at a Sunday morningrosh chodesh celebration at Sinai Temple.

These women have continued learning together. Manynow serve as mentors for this year’s celebrants.

At Adas Israel in Washington, D.C., Rabbi AvisMiller offers a multiyear course limited to female members of hercongregation who study Jewish rites and texts from a woman’sperspective.

Men are excluded from classes not out ofanimosity, rather for women to have a safe place to expressthemselves freely, and to bond with one another under the umbrella ofJewish tradition.

Within Orthodoxy, adult b’nai mitzvah is stillvirtually unknown.

Traditional Judaism bars women from reading Torahpublicly, and even from mounting the bima, so the frequently femininethrust of the adult b’nai mitzvah movement works against it in theOrthodox world.

Moreover, Orthodox rabbis emphasize that Judaismdoes not require a child to undergo a bar mitzvah ceremony in orderto come of age in a religious sense.

Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah, whoadopted religious Judaism late in life, has himself never had aformal bar mitzvah.

He explains that a Jewish boy automaticallyreaches bar mitzvah status on this 13th birthday: “You only have towake up in the morning. Even if you don’t get the pen or the party,you’re still in.”

Though Braverman strongly supports Jewish study,he feels no need to provide newly observant Jews with a ceremony thatwelcomes them into ritual manhood.

When Lou Fridkis, who first became involved withserious Jewish observance at 34, finally gained the knowledge tochant the haftorah before his congregation, he felt he had indeed become a barmitzvah, which literally means “son of the commandment.”

Because an Orthodox man is expected to devote muchof his life to study, he did not regard the event as a “culmination”warranting a long guest list and party.

Still, his wife, Judy, wrote a poem in his honor,and the couple sponsored the kiddushfollowing the service as a low-key way ofannouncing that he had reached a milestone.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-JudeaCongregation goes further.

Though he has yet to conduct an adult bar mitzvah,he is willing (within the gender constraints of Orthodoxy) to helpnew traditions evolve as a way of encouraging study.

“To create a celebration around an adult’saliyah is, in mymind, certainly doable and desirable,” Kanefsky sa

If a properly prepared adult male were called tothe Torah for the first time, Kanefsky “would happily invest energyin doing the ceremony.” Nor would he exclude women from thepossibility of an adult rite-of-passage. If the setting were a femaleprayer group, he stands ready to help devise an appropriately joyousritual.

All of which complements Orenstein’s theory thatOrthodox Jews, who have recently experimented with bat mitzvahrituals for girls, may someday endorse a more formalized course ofstudy leading to a ceremony for newly observant adults.

Will the end result be a form of b’naimitzvah?

Says Orenstein: “My suspicion is they won’t callit that.”

What It Cost$

By Alexis Sherman, Contributing Writer

We know one bat mitvah party which took placefollowing services in a synagogue reception area. The guests atecoffee cake and herring, drank tea and schnapps and went home. Weknow of others that featured the bar mitvah boy’s entrance byhelicopter and a recreation of the Western Wall. Here are someestimates from local party planners of an event somewhere betweenthose extremes.

Representative prices compiled with the help ofthe following party planners: Samantha Bruno/Events in Motion; ShellyBalloon/ A Unique Presentation; Karen Freshman/Karen’s Kreation’s;Tricia West/A Timely Affair.

The Photographer


The Video

$1,000 for the basics, $4,000 for multiple cameras and a montage sequence set to music

The Tunes

$1,500 for the DJ. $1,000-$5,000 for the band.

The Centerpieces

Centerpieces range from $15 each for mylar balloons to $200 each for, say, a large floral arrangment with a neon vase and themed tablecloths.

The Invitations

$500 for 100 people.

The Extras

Candlelighting $75

Seating Cards $2-10

Board (A blown-up photo of the adult-to-be) $220

Swing Dance Instructors: $400

Smoothie Bar: $6/person

Caricature Artist: $600/three hours

Vitual Reality Rock Climb:

$2,000/four hours

Replica of the Western Wall:


The Clothes

A bar mitzvah suit at Rudnicks: $185-285 (alterations included)

A Donna Karan Bat Mitzvah dress: $895

The Gift

Waterman Fountain Pen, $38-$1,000.

The Party Planner

You didn’t think you could do this all yourself, did you? Planners add another $500-$1,000 for their services.

The Liquor

$15 per person for a full premium bar for four hours. But that includes soda.

The Chow

Dinner for 150 starts at $50 per person for the basic chicken or fish, sides and dessert. The kids’ food starts at $25.