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Birthright’s Bar Mitzvah Class

Twelve participantssome raised Catholic, others with little Jewish knowledgeget called to the Torah

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The bar mitzvah class of 2012. (Margarita Korol)

It certainly wasn’t like any bar or bat mitzvah I’ve ever been to. Seated in the smelly multi-purpose room of our Jerusalem hotel, we watched as 12 of our trip mates undertook the most storied rite of passage in a young Jewish life. Yes, they were getting bar mitzvahed on Birthright Israel.

Our trip leader Yoav, clad in a white t-shirt and grey hat and tanned from our days of hiking, explained to the group what a parsha was—this week’s Torah portion was Shelach from the Book of Numbers. He jumped into his new role of impromptu cantor with an enthusiasm matched by none of us at the ungodly hour of 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the service started.

There was only one tallit, which the b’nai mitzvot passed amongst themselves when they were called to the Torah for an aliyah. People pronounced torahto like the city Toronto, without the ‘n,’ while reading from transliterated cue cards that Yoav had written. And sure, it was probably the first time in Jewish history anyone showed up to their bar mitzvah service sunburned and a little hungover. But there was no doubt that this was a special moment.

Special mostly because many of the 12 participants in the service had very little interaction with Judaism growing up, and most hadn’t considered getting bar mitzvahed at all when they were teenagers. This morning each of them opted to take part in a Jewish ritual that had been a requisite part of my Jewish upbringing.

A few nights ago, Yoav asked the group if anyone who’d never been bar mitzvahed wanted to have one on the trip, and it all went pretty quickly from there. The seamlessness with which our trip transitioned to include adult bar mitzvahs would be impossible in any other context; it was meant to feel like a big deal, ritually speaking, while also being a very accessible undertaking.

Matt, who grew up in Bergen County, N.J., was raised by a Jewish father and Catholic mother. (He calls this combination “cashew.”) Baptized and confirmed (all of which he revealed in his Birthright interview prior to the trip) he was nonetheless identified as the Jewish kid in his largely non-Jewish town, complete with all the taunting that accompanies such a designation.

For him, the bar mitzvah was part of a larger encounter with Judaism that he sought through this trip. “I’ve never been around actual Jews,” he explained, “People who’ve been bar or bat mitzvahed, or people who pray; it’s culture shock.” Getting bar mitzvahed on Birthright Israel—however rudimentary the ceremony—was just one component of this journey. Also raised Catholic, Kat said it was meaningful that the bat mitzvah ceremony took place in Jerusalem. Both admitted they didn’t really feel so different after the service.

“I feel like I’ve had a bar mitzvah, which is more than I thought I might feel,” said Leon, who was born in Moscow and grew up in Chicago, adding that the option was never really on the table for him at 13. What was special about doing it this way, he explained, was that instead of having no choice as a teenager, today he elected to become a bar mitzvah.

For Zach, the trip funnyman who always felt a little shame at not having been bar mitzvahed—“It’s like I’m a basketball player but I’ve never played basketball”—the morning’s events were very much a rite of passage, if only culturally.

So what happens next? Tiana, whose mother is Jewish and father Rastafarian, wasn’t nervous until she started reading the Hebrew transliteration aloud. Even after the service, she said she still doesn’t really consider herself having been bat mitzvahed. Instead, she plans on following up with a full bat mitzvah service when she returns home. (Given the choice when she was younger, and having turned it down, she says she wishes she’d been forced to do it then).

Zach said that he’s had similar experiences in the past, which made him think he’d revisit his faith (a trip to Auschwitz was one such event), but he’s never followed through. Will this time be different? He says he hopes so.

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Thought that even according to reform, that Jewishness is maternal and not paternal.  So why is Matt on a birthright trip getting  a Bar Mitzva?

esthermiriam says:

Who is going to tell these folks — certainly not the person who wrote this report — that a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not a thing that one has nor an action that is done to someone?! It is a statement of adult status in Jewish ritual life (with its pleasures and obligations) that may be symbolized by a first aliyah and participation in a service surrounding the Torah reading, but need not be.

What it needs to include, along with achieving the age prescribed, is some understanding of the meaning of what the ceremony represents, of the tradition of which it is a part and perhaps some knowledge of the commitment implied…

Certainly many synagogue-based Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies and celebrations are more focused on celebration than  ceremony, and many young people and their families are on the way out as they pass this milestone event — but most adult B’nai Mitzvot are truly a reflection of the study and intention and preparation and joyful choice of their participants: this one, from what we’re told, was far from that, and while not intended as parody approaches being such.

savtaro says:

And pursuant to esthermiriam’s comments one is not bar mitzvahed.  One becomes a bar mitzvah.  Similarly, b’nai mitzvot is grammatically incorrect Hebrew. It is, correctly, b’nai mitzvah.

LeahElisheva says:

I am sorry, but this is almost a mockery. If one is not seen as Jewish by the formal Jewish community (yes, I understand that Birthright’s definition of Jewishness is even more liberal than Reform, and the Reform movement wouldn’t consider Matt Jewish either), having an aliyah is wildly inappropriate. It would be like a non-Catholic taking Catholic Communion. It is almost a slap in the face, particularly coming from the perspective of someone of Birthright age who was not raised Jewish and who feels strongly about the primacy of the halakhic definition. The privilege of being a Jew is something that many of us worked extraordinarily hard for, and is not something to be taken lightly. A bar mitzvah is not done to someone, one is a var mitzvah at 13 or 12 for girls, it is a signifier of adult status and privilege.

Eli Goldberg says:

Not that it helps Matt, but for the record, the Reform movement does not require matrilineal descent. See 
http://urj.org/ask/questions/who_jew/ :

“The Reform movement some ten years ago decided that it would accept as Jewish anybody who has one Jewish parent (i.e. mother OR father) and who was raised Jewishly.”

You think this is a mockery of Modern Jewry any more than Modern Jewry could collectively make a mockery of itself? The entire idea of conservativism holding some elite status over reform Judaism, and Orthodox congregations holding substance over Conservatism: That is some serious horseshit.  It’s like the issue of gay marriage: Who could object to everyone having the same chance at so miserable an institution? As a by-blood Jew, I’d like to tell the incoming class, as presented here: Welcome to the Tribe. Enjoy the networking opportunities. Don’t forget to call your mother. Also, that Judaism, if seriously engaged, is probably best seriously engaged on one’s own, less they fall into the trap of believing in any kind of spiritual hierarchic passcode like the person above me does. L’shon hara, buddy. Or as a very wise Rabbi once said of those segregating Jews among Jews: They can go get rightly fucked.

Yeah, the ‘quicky’ style of the  Bnei Mitzvot seems more in line with a Vegas Wedding than following the ancient traditions. 

Maybe some contact with Birthright to figure out how to improve this aspect of the trip?

Who piddled on your post-toasties, Foster? 

Leah made an honest comment about the act of Aliyah, and made an apt comparison with other faiths and their religious specific restrictions. 

How is that mockery?  Especially compared to your own comments?

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Birthright’s Bar Mitzvah Class

Twelve participantssome raised Catholic, others with little Jewish knowledgeget called to the Torah

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