Tradition & Innovation
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An Adult Bat Mitzvah Journey

By Rabbi Sandra M. Rubenstein

On the 7th day of Sivan, 5760 (June 10, 2000), the second day of Shavuot, eleven of my fellow congregants and I crossed a significant threshold of adult Jewish life and became bat and bar mitzvah. We were nine women, two men and a teenager. We included: an 86-year-old mother and her adult daughter, a grandfather who chose to become a bar mitzvah because his grandsons were about to, a father and his teenage son, Jews by choice, working mothers of young children, and more. We were all members of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, CA.

The experience was the culmination of two years of study together. Each of my classmates was transformed by the experience. Our families, friends, congregants, colleagues and teachers were touched by the power and meaning of the day. A colleague asked me the following Monday, "Do you feel different today?" and I did.

I do.

For me and, I imagine, many other women who have taken this step, becoming an adult bat mitzvah is a fulfillment of a long-held desire that was, for various reasons, not an option for us as girls of 12 or 13. According to Dr. Lori Lefkovitz, Director of Kolot at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, adult bat mitzvah is a path of empowerment for women in their congregations and in Judaism. In many ways women are doing catch up work fulfilling an opportunity to be full Jews in Judaism. "It is never too late to seize the moment...to do it as an adult, I (a woman) am making a demand on my community. I am laying claim to my right." Women in particular are drawn at this time to take the step of becoming full adult Jews in Judaism. Adult b'nai mitzvah classes seem to be offered with more frequency in Reconstructionist congregations and havurot as well as in the other liberal Jewish movements.

My own personal interest in becoming a bat mitzvah began over 15 years ago. As an old friend stood before our mostly lesbian and gay Jewish congregation and marked this important event in her life, I remember wondering, "Will I ever take this step?" As a Jew from an unabashedly secular Jewish background, I found it difficult to imagine reading from the Torah and making a commitment to Judaism as an adult. I remember meeting several years ago with women at the Jewish Feminist Center in Los Angeles. As we broke into small groups to study, I felt ignorant and at a loss about how even to approach an ancient Jewish text. I was envious of the women who could read Hebrew and seemed so familiar with what felt so alien to me. I yearned to gain access to the discussion but the barriers felt too great, even in a supportive Jewish feminist environment.

Over the years, as I attended Friday night services, became more familiar and comfortable with the liturgy, and attended classes and some b'nai mitzvah services, I realized that I wanted to become bat mitzvah. During the past few years at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, where I have been a member for more than 20 years, I looked on with a different kind of interest as several women who had never before read Torah at High Holy Day services did so for the first time. Some chanted; some read smoothly; some stumbled; it didn't matter. I admired their courage. I felt a new sense of distinction about the men and women who had entered Jewish adulthood by becoming bar and bat mitzvah. They had earned the right to read from the Torah scroll. I wanted that right.

Working for the Reconstructionist movement brought me closer to my goal. I had been one of those people who was "a Reconstructionist and did not know it." When I began working for the JRF more than four years ago, I took the opportunity to deepen my understanding of Reconstructionism and found a God concept that spoke to both my heart and my head. I joined Kehillat Israel and began to study. I moved closer to becoming a bat mitzvah.

Finally, I read a notice in the Kehillat Israel newsletter inviting members interested in becoming b'nai mitzvah to an orientation. I jumped at the opportunity. It helped that we were asked to make a two-year commitment; I would not have to worry about the bat mitzvah for another year. The first-year commitment was to attend "Jewish Alive and American," a 30-week Reconstructionist seminar about living a committed Jewish life. We had the opportunity to explore the variety of Jewish responses to our questions, and to learn to read a road map of the Jewish landscape.

At the beginning of our second year, several of my classmates and I were nervous with anticipation. Could we learn enough Hebrew? How would we ever learn to chant the Torah portion? Rabbis Sheryl Lewart and Steven Carr Reuben and Cantor Chayim Frenkel gently reassured us that others just like us had successfully walked this same path.

As the months progressed, I no longer felt intimidated by Torah discussions. I was impressed with the level of Jewish knowledge of those who came regularly to Torah study. I wondered if I would ever feel as familiar with the texts. I felt drawn to learn more. The doors of our tradition seemed open and inviting rather than alienating and off-putting. My excitement and curiosity took over and my thirst for Jewish knowledge increased yet again. My personal Jewish practice deepened and expanded. I had profound spiritual questions. I wanted to understand the meaning of the prayers. It was no longer enough for me to say the Hebrew words of a prayer or read the transliterations. I wanted to understand the Hebrew as I said it.

I was also profoundly affected during this time, by the illness and eventual death of my father, Solly Rubenstein z'I. Visiting him at the assisted living home where he spent the last six months of his life, serving as his legal representative, making life-and-death decisions on his behalf, played an important role in my spiritual growth. I wondered about God, about the role of prayer, about the moral right to end life-support. This profoundly affected my search for meaning as I moved ever closer to becoming a bat mitzvah.

Our classes at Kehillat Israel included Hebrew, trope (torah melodies), understanding Reconstructionism, programs by scholars-in-residence, and more all open to the congregation at large. We also were expected to attend a certain number of Friday night and Saturday morning services, Torah study sessions, and a few Shabbat lunches with the clergy. We had the opportunity to make a tallit (prayer shawl), choose a Hebrew name and go to the mikveh (ritual bath).

The tradition at Kehillat Israel is for adults to become b'nai mitzvah in a group. This was an adjustment for me, as I had imagined leading the service as my friend had done 15 years before. I was fortunate to be able to address my need by giving the Friday night sermon at my other shul. Doing so allowed me to delve deeper into my Torah portion and celebrate with my two communities, my mostly lesbian and gay congregation and my Reconstructionist congregation.

The bat mitzvah experience itself was breathtaking (I did stop breathing at least at one point). I thrilled to the chanting of my classmates, some who never believed they would sing trope. Our personal reflections were interspersed throughout the service. It was exciting to hear my newly chosen Hebrew name, Nofiyah Amitah, called out for the first time as I made my way up to the Torah. Reading from the Torah was like moving into an altered state of consciousness. I was unaware of the 325-plus family members, friends and congregants in the sanctuary. I was solely focused on chanting the words of our ancient text.

I came away from the experience transformed. I now feel empowered to participate ritually in a different way. I feel excited and entitled to wear my tallit, a gift from my life partner, Marie-Jeanne. I am interested in learning to lead services. I feel called to further my Hebrew and Judaic studies. I approach my work as JRF West Coast Regional Director with a deeper understanding and awareness of the value of our tradition. I am a stronger, more committed Reconstructionist. As Rabbi Sheryl Lewart said, Its like your spirit was watered and you bloomed. You became who you were meant to be."

The experience of becoming a bat mitzvah has been an act of empowerment. Until the beginning of this century, becoming a bat mitzvah was not available to girls. In my conversation with Dr. Lori Lefkovitz, she described how Judaism was complicit in Western culture treating girls differently at puberty from boys." Girls for the first time were denied parity. Judaism failed to celebrate girls' entrance into womanhood. We carried what it meant to enter adulthood, both in secular society and in Judaism, as a wound."

Women continue to reclaim the right to participate as full adult members of the Jewish community. Becoming a bat mitzvah is a powerful means to that end. It can redress an imbalance, create a profound healing and permit many women to embrace the totality of our Jewish selves. As more and more women choose this path, synagogue communities, Jewish tradition, ritual life, and the Jewish world, gain the benefit of women's wisdom, knowledge and experience.