A Humanistic Bat Mitzvah

Some families choose a nontraditional path toward adult Jewish identity and responsibility.

Reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, June 2000.

Here was the challenge: How would we affirm the Jewish identity of our daughter who had grown up in a home with no Yiddish-speaking zayde (grandfather), who took pride in Israel but did not identify personally with the country, and to whom the Holocaust, while horrific, seemed as remote as the Crusades? In other words, how could our assimilated American child prepare for her bat mitzvah–a rite of passage and a celebration of Jewishness that our family had eagerly looked forward to–in a way that would be personal, authentic, profound, and consistent with our secular beliefs? 

Finding a Meaningful Alternative

Molly had begun classes at our Reform Temple in Connecticut at age four. But as the years passed, we saw problems on the horizon. She watched skeptically as older friends prepared for their upcoming ceremonies amid grumbling and anxiety. Mainly, kids complained about the memorization of a portion that was less than meaningful, and adults complained about the emphasis on the party. As parents, we privately wondered how Molly’s special day would manage to commemorate some deeply felt connection between her adolescent self and her magnificent heritage.

When Molly was 11 years old, we found our answer. With our move to Manhattan, we learned about The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism. They offered a bar/bat mitzvah program that was creative, relevant, provocative, and deeply Jewish.

The highlights of Molly’s bat mitzvah preparation would be twofold: she would work closely with an adult mentor, and she would take responsibility for choosing and researching a major topic of inquiry, which she would then present at her ceremony. There would be bar/bat mitzvah classes, but in addition, she would be expected to choose and write essays about Jewish values, heroes, social action projects, and what this entire bat mitzvah education had meant to her.

Molly’s response was electric. She saw she was committing to a lot of work and a lot of responsibility, but she loved the fact that she’d be making choices, and she would have to explain why she had made them. I saw an immediate effect: she had more respect for herself and more energy for the project.

That year, she visited throughout New York–the Jewish Museum, the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island–and wrote extensively about each visit. She found books appropriate to each site. She interviewed 92-year-old Pearl about growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. After each visit, she e-mailed her journal reports to Myrna Baron, the congregation’s president and Molly’s bat mitzvah mentor. Predictably, Myrna responded with interest and more questions.

Our entire family became involved in Molly’s continuing Jewish education. Each visit, book read, and essay became a catalyst for lively discussion. What aspects of Jewish heritage and memory yield messages today? What makes a Jewish hero? (Molly’s choice was Israeli activist and feminist Shulamit Aloni, whom we were thrilled to meet briefly when she passed through New York.)

The responsibility of choosing and defending her choices gave Molly (and her parents) tremendous pride. At the same time, the mentor relationship nurtured trust and self-confidence, as Myrna treated Molly’s opinions with respect while prodding her to keep reading, writing, and thinking. It was easy to see how this mentor connection could become a lasting relationship with a lasting impact. Further, the mentors became role models as the children saw these adult members demonstrating commitment, generosity, and excellence.

Molly’s Project

Molly’s major research project, "The Streets Were Paved with Cement," investigated Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side, as well as the immigration of her father’s non-Jewish ancestors to California. Her study of Jewish history was infused with personal meaning.

Like other humanistic bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, Molly’s ceremony was rich with music, readings, and spoken presentations. Before the ceremony, relatives asked if Molly would chant the Torah. I explained that Humanistic Jews view the Torah as one source of our cherished, inherited literature, but not the only source. Molly had learned to read Torah critically, to treat it as any important literature. Her bat mitzvah, however, would focus on responsibility, values, heroes, social action, and the personal impact of this rite of passage.

As Molly’s mother, I was touched to see that Molly’s speech moved some of her listeners to tears. It is truly joyous when children open their hearts and share their ideas, hopes, and enthusiasm directly with a congregation. It’s hard not to kvell (glow with pride).

Since her bat mitzvah, Molly has become an assistant teacher to younger children at the City Congregation school and continues to attend Shabbat services. We have no doubt her connection to Jewish peoplehood is a lasting one. By assuming so much responsibility for her own bat mitzvah, she has become an active part of the Jewish community.

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