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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Because the bat mitzvah ceremony is a relatively recent phenomenon historically, many adult women never had the opportunity to participate in this Jewish coming-of-age ritual. In response, the adult bat mitzvah ceremony was developed to offer these women a chance to study about Judaism and to affirm their Jewish commitments publicly, and it eventually expanded to include both men and women. Some initiatives, like Chai Mitzvah, encourage all adults to reaffirm their commitment to Jewish life on an ongoing basis, every 18 years. This article, reprinted with permission from JewishFamily.com, explores the motivations that impel Jewish men and women to pursue an adult bar/bat mitzvah.

Most descriptions of an adult bar or 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 (pulpit) of any synagogue and 83-year-old men who celebrate a second bar mitzvah, having lived a life span of 70 years since the first. 

But adult bar or bat mitzvah happens at many ages and for many reasons. The bar or bat mitzvah ceremony 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. The very lack of necessity makes such an effort even more remarkable as a concrete, hard-won, and public affirmation of Jewish identity and commitment.

Why No Bar/Bat Mitzvah Until Now?

Most of the reasons that Jews don't have bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies 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 film producer in Los Angeles who grew up belonging to a Conservative synagogue on Long Island. "I remember talking with the other boys at my temple, and 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 ceremony just to have a party and presents. It felt very hypocritical to me."

adult bat mitzvah"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."

The spiritual alienation felt at 13 by Jane, a Los Angeles copyeditor, 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."

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 of 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. 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."

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Ellen Jaffe-Gill

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