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Why I Had A Bat Mitzvah As An Adult

Why I Had A Bat Mitzvah As An Adult

As told to  Gail Siegel

I grew up on the Upper East Side of New York City in the 1950s. Most of my friends were Jewish and we all attended Sunday school at the reform synagogue we belonged to down the block from my apartment. My younger brother had his Bar Mitzvah when he turned thirteen but girls were not given the option to have a Bat Mitzvah at the time. We were confirmed (a ceremony where you make a commitment to the Jewish religion), but we weren’t asked nor were we expected to have a Bat Mitzvah. Nobody ever questioned why— that was just the way it was and it never occurred to me to ask. 

That is, until my oldest daughter turned 12 and began to study for her own Bat Mitzvah. My husband and I had just moved our growing family down to South Florida from New York. One of the first things we did after we settled in was to join a reform synagogue similar to the one I grew up attending. My husband was raised attending an Orthodox synagogue on the Jersey shore but we decided to raise our children in a reform temple. I was looking forward to bringing my older daughter to her first Hebrew lesson. I was so thrilled for her to take part in the Jewish ritual many girls before her -including me- weren’t able to have. After my other two daughters had their Bat Mitzvahs services a few years later, I decided it was finally time to experience my own Jewish rite of passage. 

I felt lucky times had changed and Bat Mitzvahs were finally acceptable for girls. I also felt so fortunate to be living in a country where we are free to do what we want. My temple had recently started offering adult education courses. I recall feeling if you don’t take the opportunity to do something so special when it is offered to you, it was just wrong. It was a big commitment to learn to chant from the Torah, study the haftorah and analyze the relevant torah portion. Because of that, I didn’t take it on until all my girls were in college and I had more time to focus on learning Hebrew and all the prayers necessary to becoming a Bat Mitzvah. It’s very hard to learn a foreign language to begin with, especially as an adult, but I was very determined. The class I signed up for had 12 other adults in it (all but one were women). We became so close to each other over the year and a half long class and the rabbi who led the class was so encouraging. 

When the big day finally came, the congregation was filled with friends and family of my fellow classmates. I remember feeling so proud of my accomplishment as I stood on the bima in my black and white suit looking out at the congregation. My family and grown daughters came to my service and we celebrated with a kiddush with my fellow students at the temple and then a celebratory brunch at my house afterwards. I didn’t get to wear a big party dress like my girls but that’s not what’s really important. My service was so special and meaningful. My husband gave me a beautiful gold Star of David necklace that I now wear for all the Jewish holidays and it serves to remind me of my achievement. I wish my parents could have been there to share in my service but I know they would have been so proud of me too. 

I think it’s very important to teach your children and grandchildren about Israel and the history of the Jewish people and I wanted to set an example that hard work pays off and if you feel strongly about something you go after it. Now, when I attend Shabbat services on Fridays at my temple throughout the year and especially when I attend synagogue during the High Holy Day services of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I feel even more connected to the rabbi and the cantor and I understand more about the prayers and their meanings and what we are celebrating on each holiday. The more you know about something, the more you can appreciate it. As the saying goes, it’s never too late to do something or learn something new and I am so glad with my decision to further my jewish education.

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