a generic image of a girl reading from the Torah
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Readers offer alternatives for 11-year-old who wants bat mitzvah, but would be starting from scratch

I received a number of comments on my March 26 column about an 11-year-old who wants a bat mitzvah but would be starting from scratch because she has not been raised Jewish. I’d like to reply to all of you:

“A bat mitzvah need not take place at age 13. You can have a bat mitzvah at any age; plenty of adults are proudly having their b’not mitzvah.”

I encourage anyone who wants to have a bar or bat mitzvah to do so. Now, let’s be clear on what a bat (or bar) mitzvah is. According to halachah, Jewish boys become Jewish adults on their 13th birthday. (For a girl it can be at age 12 or 13 depending upon one’s observance.) Just as a boy wakes up on his birthday and is 13, he is also a bar mitzvah, literally, son of the commandments. He doesn’t have to read from the Torah or have a party. He is simply considered “of age,” and responsible for following Jewish law.

In American Jewish culture, we tend to think of a bar/bat mitzvah in terms of the preparation that a young person undertakes in order to be called to the Torah, to read Hebrew, to lead a service. Of course, there’s also the celebration that follows. You don’t need any of these to be halachically responsible to follow the mitzvot, i.e., be a bar or bat mitzvah.

Calling a young person to the Torah is an honor that acknowledges before the community that this person is now an adult, a responsible member of the tribe. Today the young person also leads much of the religious service. However, Jews at any age can decide they want to read from the Torah and participate in the religious leadership of the community. An adult bar or bat mitzvah does not change their status. The adult has been responsible for following the mitzvot since age 13. But some want the experience of learning Hebrew and leading a service.

“Explain to the girl that she need not have a religious ceremony. Her mother could simply sponsor an oneg.”

The girl wants a religious ceremony. Trying to talk her out of having a bat mitzvah or convincing her that a birthday party is just as good misses the point. She is asking for a bat mitzvah. Second, Mom didn’t ask what she could do instead of giving her daughter a bat mitzvah; she asked whether her daughter’s wish is simply a passing phase that she might ignore. It is important for her to get comfortable talking with her daughter.

“She can have a nontraditional bat mitzvah, without using Hebrew. Independent rabbis or laypeople can design a meaningful program of study. Don’t turn the girl away because she may feel that the workload is excessive.”

Bear in mind that the girl never said preparing for the bat mitzvah was too much trouble or time. If she wants to have a bat mitzvah, she deserves to know what is involved. If she then decides that it is too much work, she can say so.

In addition, bat mitzvahs are communal experiences. Why offer her an alternative path away from Jewish community? Sure, she can pay to study with someone who does this for a living and then never see the tutor again. But why not give her the entire joyous experience of belonging to a community, studying with her peers, making friends with other teens, teachers and her rabbi?

It is hard for her mother, and for a number of my readers, to separate their personal feelings and beliefs from what this young lady is asking for. If we stop reacting and simply listen, we’ll see that she is exploring what it means to be Jewish. Why not answer her questions, trusting that she has the intelligence to make a decision based on the facts?

I will also note that young people who have a backyard bar or bat mitzvah without the connection to a religious community may later feel they have missed out, because they haven’t shared the experience of their synagogue-going peers. Talk to your kids and listen to what they are seeking.

Dawn Kepler

Dawn Kepler leads Building Jewish Bridges, a program of Lehrhaus Judaica that embraces Bay Area interfaith families. “Mixed & Matched” offers advice for Jews in interfaith relationships and families. Send letters to dawn@buildingjewishbridges.org.