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Birthright’s Bar Mitzvah Class

Twelve participants—some raised Catholic, others with little Jewish knowledge—get called to the Torah

Stephanie Butnick
June 16, 2012
The bar mitzvah class of 2012. (Margarita Korol)

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.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.