Almost four years ago, I became “of age,” by most American 20-somethings’ standards. Now legally allowed to drink, I celebrated in typical fashion with my friends, going to the local bars and clubs, proudly showing my ID at the door, proof that I was an adult. But that milestone, though long awaited, was small in comparison to what would take place nearly three days later, when I would stand at the bimah and read from the Torah for the first time. I was becoming bat mitzvah at the age of 21.
It happened simply enough, but the ceremony itself was a long time coming. I had been attending events and Shabbat services with Hillel at San Diego State University for almost a year and had even been asked to coordinate the women’s events on campus. While I worked two jobs and juggled a full class load, I always managed to find time to stop by Hillel whenever I could. I met some very good friends there and found a confidant in Hillel director Jackie Tolley. One day, she mentioned a b’nai mitzvah group was forming, and she thought I might be interested in joining.
Although not something I ever imagined I would do, adult b’nai mitzvah are on the rise, and college-aged students and young adults are the fastest growing group of Jews exploring their Jewish identities more deeply, according to Edmund Case, CEO of Interfaithfamily.com.
In fact, UCSD Hillel campus director Keri Copans, who is co-teaching the university’s b’nai mitzvah class this year, has noticed this trend directly, as her class size has doubled in one year.
“Adult b’nai mitzvah are becoming more common,” she says, “because there’s not just one way of being Jewish. When it feels right to you, and you choose to do it [have your bar or bat mitzvah], it has greater meaning.”
In UCSD’s 20-week student b’nai mitzvah program (SDSU’s spans the academic year), topics like Jewish identity and history, rituals, holidays and Israel are covered alongside Hebrew language lessons.
“Yesterday we talked about Shabbat, and we had the challah and grape juice, and later challenged the students to honor Shabbat in their way,” Copans says of teaching students how to incorporate Judaism into their lives.
Using a program called Read Hebrew America, students learn how to read Hebrew by focusing on one letter at a time. First they learn aleph, and then look at words with aleph in it. Then they move on to bet, and so on. Copans says many students are actually reading Hebrew words within the first 10 minutes.
This year’s UCSD b’nai mitzvah class is comprised of six students, some of whom have just returned from a Birthright trip with Hillel. Many of the students come from a home with only one Jewish parent, which Copans says gives the class another dimension.
“It’s amazing that students want to be a part of our community, and although I have a very strong sense of Jewish self, [some of our students are just getting there]. We tell people all the time, if you consider yourself Jewish, come to an event. It’s really what pluralism is about.”
Case of Interfaithfamily.com agrees. He says he’s noticed the increasing number of interfaith families who identify themselves as Jewish, but who celebrate the secular aspects of Christmas and Easter.
“About half of the young people today who identify as Jewish will have grown up with families that celebrated the [non-Jewish] holidays, without giving them any religious significance,” he says.
Kayla Guinn, a junior at UCSD who traveled to Israel with Hillel last summer, comes from such a family. Her father, who was raised Catholic, and her mother, raised Jewish, allowed her to make her own decisions regarding faith while celebrating each religion’s major holidays equally.
“I wasn’t really raised in a religious household,” Guinn says, “and although I went to my cousins’ bar and bat mitzvahs, I always felt like an alien in that setting. I didn’t understand the prayers or the whole process of it all.”
Growing up, I felt a lot like Guinn. My family had a Christmas tree and a menorah; we had an Easter egg hunt with our friends, and then we attended a Passover Seder. It wasn’t until later that I realized how confusing this all could be.
About halfway through my studies, the magnitude of what I was doing didn’t sit well with the part of me that had grown to love Christmas carols and decorating our tree with my grandmother’s ornaments each year. It felt like I was leaving behind a very important part of who I am. I started to wonder if being “really” Jewish was what I wanted — and I worried that I didn’t have enough information to make such a monumental decision.
I remember vividly a conversation with Tolley where I asked her if becoming bat mitzvah would mean I now had to attend Shabbat services regularly, fast during Yom Kippur and give up Easter and Christmas celebrations with my mother’s side of the family. Would I have to be a “real” Jew now?
When I began questioning my decision and skipped a few b’nai mitzvah classes, she called and e-mailed to make sure I stayed up to date on the content. When I shared my concerns with her, she reassured me. There’s no one way to be Jewish, she told me, and I was still Jewish if I didn’t observe all 613 mitzvot, daven three times a day and keep glatt kosher. She made Jewish learning more accessible and didn’t give up on me, even when I was ready to give up and go back to being a secular “half-Jew.”
Guinn understood my initial worries and discomfort.
“When you don’t have any understanding of the religion, it’s kind of intimidating to go to things [like services or mixers] where you don’t know what people are saying or what the practices are,” she says.
Still, Guinn has attended almost all of her b’nai mitzvah classes at Hillel this quarter,
“It’s exciting as an adult to see [the students] want to make the commitment of two hours a week, on top of an already packed schedule,” Copans says.
Hillel’s goal through all of this is simple: to create a welcoming environment where young Jews just beginning to delve into their religious identity feel comfortable in the process.
“We want to give them more tools,” Copans says. “Some students have no prior knowledge [of Judaism’s traditions], but what’s most important is that they feel connected to the Jewish community and want to be involved in this program — kind of owning their Jewish identity. It’s really a transformative experience, and it’s so exciting at the end, when the students end up actually leading the service.”
The summer following my bat mitzvah service, I went to Israel on Birthright with Hillel. When I returned home, I realized that the previous year’s experiences — studying Hebrew and coming to understand Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people — solidified my identity as a Jewish woman and ignited the desire to fully embrace it. I haven’t become Orthodox, I don’t keep kosher and I don’t attend Shabbat services regularly, but I do celebrate Passover and the High Holy Days. I’m still learning, though, and I’ve made mistakes.
Once during Passover, I accidentally ate some green beans mixed into my Niçoise salad for lunch. Rather than immediately rushing to my nearest synagogue and davening to correct my misstep, I simply chalked it up to still being a Jew-in-training. While I’ve had time post-bat mitzvah to really put my education into practice, Guinn is just approaching the culmination of her months of learning.
Guinn’s bat mitzvah will be held at UCSD in May, and she plans to have her family, who support her studies, there with her.
“I don’t know what about [becoming bat mitzvah] initially attracted me,” she says, “but the religion and the culture are so embracing. It’s more of the culture that I identify with as of right now.”
As to whether or not Guinn will pursue further Jewish education, she is unsure — after all, she’s only just begun. She’ll figure that out in time. Meanwhile, the Jewish learning never stops for the teachers who lead these young adults in their b’nai mitzvah training.
“It’s an incredible honor to teach and lead people through this experience,” Copans says, “and I feel very lucky to [teach the class]. “Every time, I’m learning more about my Jewish identity, too. I think that’s what makes Jewish learning so incredible — it’s never ending.”
And although the idea of adult Jews becoming b’nai mitzvah after having grown up celebrating other religions’ holidays may be uncomfortable for more traditional institutions, Case says what Hillel is doing is actually what Judaism today needs.
“Synagogues are very important, but there is a problem attracting people,” he says. “The idea that you can go somewhere like Hillel sort of supports the importance of always being welcoming. If the door is left open to beginning a Jewish education at ages 18 to 22, it is more meaningful than being forced into something at 12 or 13 that you may not fully understand.”
In some areas, my life has become decidedly Jewish. I work for a Jewish publication, have a Jewish boyfriend and spend nearly every Shabbat having dinner with his family. My mother, though divorced from my father for almost 17 years, calls to wish me a happy Chanukah each year and asks me how High Holy Day services went. She admits that having a Jewish daughter was not what she had pictured (my brother and sister don’t embrace the Jewish side of their heritage as wholeheartedly as I have), she is entirely supportive of my lifestyle. Someday, I hope to raise my children in a more “traditional” Jewish household and will be as supportive of their choices as my family was of mine.
My grandparents flew from Steubenville, Ohio, for the ceremony, held at the original Temple Beth Israel in Old Town’s Heritage Park. Along with my non-Jewish Asian roommate, secular Jewish father and Conservative Jewish grandparents, we went for Mexican food and margaritas afterward. It was far from your typical bat mitzvah celebration, but then again, I guess I don’t do things so traditionally.