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For Jewish Converts, It’s Never Too Late for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah

For these adults, the ceremony isn’t about presents or lavish parties. It’s about affirming their place in the Jewish community.

Olivia Gordon
January 27, 2016
Photo: Phil Raphan
Rabbi David Baum with Sabrina Meiselman, who celebrated her bat mitzvah as an adult. Photo: Phil Raphan
Photo: Phil Raphan
Rabbi David Baum with Sabrina Meiselman, who celebrated her bat mitzvah as an adult. Photo: Phil Raphan

Kathy Hirst’s daughters Rebekah and Tori, now in their early 20s, had their bat mitzvahs when they were 13, typical for girls in their Reform community. But Hirst herself hadn’t had a bat mitzvah when she was their age; she’d only converted to Judaism at age 27 when she got married.

Two years ago, when Hirst got divorced and her 50th birthday was looming, she decided it was time to have a bat mitzvah of her own. “I only converted because I was getting married,” the now-52-year-old Hirst told me recently, “but the net result has been that I’ve been really involved in the community for a long time and wanted to publicly acknowledge that.” So, after nine months studying in the evenings, the criminal barrister from north London stood up in front of a full congregation at the Finchley Reform Synagogue to read her Torah portion and give her d’var Torah. Rebekah was there to cheer her along, and Tori, on tour in Israel, streamed the ceremony on a video link. The experience, and support from the congregation, Hirst said, were “life-affirming.”

“It wasn’t that all of a sudden after the divorce I thought: ‘Oh, what can I do to prove I’m Jewish?’ It was about having a landmark birthday and thinking: ‘How can I mark that in a way that’s significant to me?’” said Hirst. “I’ve spent more of my adult life being Jewish than not, I’ve been a warden for years and my kids have a strong Jewish identity. My in-laws passed away before I divorced, but they were relatively well-known in the Jewish community and they were my family and my children are part of that family. My bat mitzvah was an interesting process of thinking about what I wanted to do with my Jewish identity—how I express it and how other people see me.”

There are many reasons for people to have bar or bat mitzvahs as adults: Some didn’t have a ceremony in adolescence because their families weren’t observant, or (for girls) bat mitzvahs weren’t performed when they were 13. Older Jews who came of age during the Holocaust often didn’t have the chance to mark the occasion—while other Jews who did have a bar mitzvah at 13 enjoy the tradition of having a second one at 83. And adult bar mitzvahs have become something of a Hollywood fashion, with recent years seeing ceremonies for Paula Abdul and James Franco.

But many adult converts want a bar mitzvah, too, and synagogues around the world today welcome such ceremonies. “I am seeing a new group,” said Rabbi David Baum of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in Boca Raton, Florida, “people who never had the opportunity to have a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony because they weren’t born Jewish.” According to Rabbi Julia Neuberger—a baroness and member of Britain’s House of Lords—adult bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies for converts are now “relatively common,” as “part of a growing trend for adult bar mitzvahs for people who didn’t have one as a child.”

Gavriel Fleischer, a 39-year-old software engineer and father of three young children, had a bar mitzvah at the age of 27. Fleischer’s father was born in Hungary in 1946, immediately after many members of his family died in the war. Although Fleischer’s father was Jewish, he didn’t practice his religion and never had his own bar mitzvah. He raised his son in a non-practicing household in Budapest; Gavriel, in fact, didn’t even know his father was Jewish until he was a teenager.

After discovering his heritage, and visiting religious relatives in Israel, Fleischer decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism, make aliyah, and, with encouragement from his Israeli family, organize his bar mitzvah for a month after his immersion in the mikveh. “I was doing it instead of my father, and also for my grandmother, and in a way for the part of my family who perished in the Holocaust,” said Fleischer, who now lives in Ashdod, “getting back to something that was supposed to be done when I was 13 and wasn’t done because of the Holocaust.”

Having a bar mitzvah as an adult, Fleischer said, was “a strange thing” and “a hard thing to do.”

“I prepared myself for weeks, but I had that feeling like when you go on stage and everyone is looking at you,” Fleischer recalled. “Even if it had been in Hungarian, I would have felt stressed, and it was in Hebrew. I’m not sure most of the adults in the synagogue understood it, because they hadn’t had a similar experience [of bar mitzvah in adulthood]. But they knew my story and really encouraged me. My uncle brought me tefillin, organized everything for the kiddush afterward, did everything as if I was his own son.” (As for his own father, he said: “He was proud but he doesn’t make a big issue of it. He doesn’t know the real meaning of it because he wasn’t educated for it.”)

Adult bar mitzvahs are very different from the stereotypical youthful experience. There is usually no wild party afterward. “I don’t know what a bar mitzvah party is,” Fleischer joked; Hirst took family to see The Book of Mormon in London’s West End to celebrate after her ceremony. And as for presents, they are the last thing on the adults’ minds.

“There is a very different quality to adult bar mitzvahs,” said Rabbi Miriam Berger of the Finchley Reform Synagogue, who has facilitated half a dozen such ceremonies, including Hirst’s and one for an 83-year-old convert. Such an occasion, Berger said, was “about acknowledging a different life stage” from the usual coming of age: “It’s about a fulfillment of life, being able to say, ‘Look how much I’ve achieved and created in life,’ accompanied by children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. It can be a special opportunity to look back and count your blessings.”

Berger says that for converts to Judaism in particular, a bar or bat mitzvah “can be very emotional; it represents a hugely long journey of many years from when they felt the need to become Jewish to that day.”

“It’s not something you’re going through as a peer group; you’ve not got parents making a fuss,” Berger explained. “It’s about the individual. It happens organically, once you’ve been through the conversion process. People start saying they want to read Torah for the community, and we use the terminology of bat mitzvah. With adults, it’s a lot less taught, a lot more self-motivated.”

As a convert, Hirst had often wondered where she fit within the community and history of Judaism. “When people talk about ‘what happened to our people’ biblically or in the Holocaust or in Eastern Europe, you think, ‘That’s not me,’ ” she said. “The idea of how you define yourself as Jewish really fascinated me, and my bat mitzvah was my own personal acknowledgement of where I stood within the family of Israel.”

What kind of ceremony is possible for converts varies depending on their gender and chosen denomination. For example, women who convert to Orthodox Judaism don’t have bat mitzvahs because Orthodox women don’t read from the Torah—although, Berger notes, “they might mark integration into the community in a different way,” such as a hafrashat challah, a ritual in which a symbolically holy part of challah dough is set aside.

In halachic terms, an adult bar mitzvah ceremony isn’t a necessity, since an adult or converted Jew is automatically considered bar mitzvah. “There’s no magic wand that’s waved when you get called to Torah,” said Berger. “All you have to do is wake up on your 13th birthday—or go to the beit din in the process of converting.”

Nonetheless, said Fleischer, the ceremony is important in other ways. “Bar mitzvah is a tradition,” he said. “It’s not that if you don’t do it, you’re not Jewish. It’s not an official part of the conversion. But it’s something every 13-year-old does, so why wouldn’t I when I was 27?” In making his decision, he also thought about his future children having their ceremonies at 13: “What would I tell my son when he said, ‘It’s too hard, I don’t want to do it’?”

Berger said that ultimately, adult bar mitzvahs for converts are all about continued learning as Jews. “Going to the beit din isn’t the end of the journey; it isn’t, for most people, a time when they feel fully comfortable in their Judaism,” she said. “So much of Judaism is about feeling comfortable in your community, and I think a lot of adults who choose to become bar mitzvah after they convert are saying, ‘I’ve continued to acquire the tools of being a Jewish adult and now I’m presenting myself in front of the community as fully fledged.’ It’s very different to a panel of rabbis saying, ‘According to this law we’re giving you the status of a Jew.’ Bar mitzvah is also a rite of passage. It becomes an iconic representation of feeling confident in this community.”

Olivia Gordon is a British freelance journalist who writes for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites.