Judaism just felt right to Julia Engel, who grew up Catholic but converted to Judaism more than two decades ago.
She studied the religion and attended services. She married a Jewish man and had a Jewish family. But there was one element of the Jewish tradition she had never experienced, so when her 10-year-old daughter received the date for her Bat Mitzvah four years ago, Engel started to think that she wanted to have one, too.
“This will bring my journey, maybe, full circle, from where I started 20-some years ago when I was 26 years old, when I wanted to become Jewish as a choice, a Jew by choice,” Engel said. “I thought, ‘This is it then. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. I’ve attended; I’ve studied; I’ve worshipped; I’ve lived. Now, I’m going to actually complete it by doing this.’”
For the women and men — though mostly women — who have B’nai Mitzvahs as adults, their reasons for doing so vary. Some, like Engel, converted as adults. Others grew up in families that didn’t have a strong connection to their Jewish communities or couldn’t afford Hebrew classes. And then, of course, there’s that common story of the woman who has a Bat Mitzvah as an adult because the community she belonged to as a child only performed Bar Mitzvahs for boys.
Unlike B’nai Mitzvahs for 12- and 13-year-olds, these adult B’nai Mitzvahs tend to be done as a group, the celebrations tend to be more low-key and the B’nai Mitzvahs themselves bring added perspective to the experience.
Congregation Rodeph Shalom has an adult B’nai Mitzvah class whenever there are enough people who have expressed interest in participating, said Rabbi Eli Freedman, which generally happens every few years. Their last class, a group of eight women, had their B’not Mitzvah in March 2017.
Freedman said adult B’nai Mitzvah classes used to be dominated by older women who hadn’t had a Bat Mitzvah when they were younger because their communities didn’t practice them. Now, that’s no longer the case.
“We’re seeing less of that,” Freedman said. “There’s just not as many of those women around. … What we’re seeing more of now is more conversion students.”
Converts are now the most common reason for adult B’nai Mitzvahs at Rodeph Shalom, he said, but most of their adult B’nai Mitzvahs are still women because most of the conversions they do are of women.
Despite the changing motivations to have adult B’nai Mitzvahs, women still dominate this custom at other synagogues as well. All 10 people in Barbara Marx’s adult B’nai Mitzvah class at Adath Israel in 2014, for example, were women.
Marx never had a Bat Mitzvah as a child because her parents could only afford either piano lessons or Hebrew school, and she was doing well with piano. But as a child, she had conversations with her grandfather about having a Bat Mitzvah one day, and as the years went by, she became more observant.
“When Adath Israel offered the adult Bat Mitzvah classes, it seemed like the opportunity was right,” she said. “It was too good to pass up actually.”
Studying for her Bat Mitzvah took about eight months. Like most adult B’nai Mitzvahs, the class had their ceremony together. At the end, they were blessed beneath a chuppah held by their adult children. Afterward, they had a kiddush luncheon, where Marx held up a thimble of vodka to her grandfather, who died when she was 11 years old.
“He was the smartest person in the world, or at least in my world,” Marx said. “His good opinion of me meant an awful lot.”
More recently in January, Melissa Ufberg had what she called a “surprise Bat Mitzvah.” After eight months of learning to read Hebrew and trope with Susan Novack, she went to Congregation Adath Jeshurun to read Torah for the first time and found out that her husband had invited her friends and family for an event he had made into her Bat Mitzvah.
As a child, Ufberg didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah because her family didn’t belong to a synagogue, and she had little Jewish education. Her husband, though, had a strong Jewish upbringing, so they decided they wanted Judaism to be a major part of their home.
Their children attend Perelman Jewish Day School, and seeing them learn Hebrew inspired Ufberg to learn to read Torah. A trip she took to Israel with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project motivated her as well.
“That really also lit the spark for me to seek out learning and to seek out something that I always felt was missing, and to take the time — because everybody’s lives are so busy and everything — but to take the time to do something that I had wanted to do for a long time,” Ufberg said.
At the ceremony, Ufberg’s friends gifted her with a tallit from Israel that they chipped in to buy.
“I had tears in my eyes when they gave it to me,” she said. “It was such a meaningful moment in receiving a tallit of my own. I had needlepointed one for my sons that they’ll receive on their Bar Mitzvahs, but I had never imagined that I would have one of my own, that I would have the opportunity to be wearing that.”
That evening, her husband gave her a pocket watch that once belonged to his great-great-grandfather. Ufberg said it is a custom in their family to re-gift this same watch to each person in their family who has a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Having one when she did, Ufberg said, gave the ceremony deeper meaning for her than it might have when she was just 13.
“Being older, you have the perspective of the specialness of the moment and just kind of thinking, Jews all over the world, not everyone has this,” she said. “Not everyone is able to openly read Torah and worship as they want. Through the ages, our people haven’t, so that really struck me also, that I’m part of this history, this heritage. As a 13-year-old, I might not have appreciated that as much as I would as an adult.” ❤
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