Adult B’nei Mitzvah Class of 5779
What were Rabbi Akiva's beginnings? It is said: Up to the age of forty, he had not yet studied a thing. One time, while standing by the mouth of a well in Lod, he inquired, "Who hollowed out this stone?" and he was told, "Akiva, haven't you read that 'water wears away stone' (Job 14:19)? - it was water falling upon it constantly, day after day." At that, Rabbi Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study at least one section of Torah.
He went directly to a synagogue, and he and his son began reading from a child's tablet. Rabbi Akiva took hold of one end of the tablet, and his son of the other end. The teacher wrote down alef and bet for him, and he learned them; alef to tav, and he learned them; the book of Leviticus, and he learned it. He went on studying until he learned the whole Torah.
Then he went and sat before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua. "My masters," he said, "reveal all of your wisdom to me." When they told him one halakhah, he went off to study on his own. This alef, he wondered, what was it written for? That bet - what was it written for? This teaching - what was it uttered for? He kept coming back, kept inquiring of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, until he reduced his teachers to silence.
-Avot d’Rebbe Natan/Teachings of Rabbi Natan 6:2
After becoming a mother almost two years ago, I felt like I needed another challenge. I needed to take some time for myself and do something that would answer my Jewish questions, connect me with my past, my heritage, my religion, traditions, work, and community. My goal on this day is to feel empowered, proud, and accomplished.
Five years ago when my husband and I lived in Israel, I never thought I’d be taking this class. When I moved back to the States, I knew I wanted to work in a Jewish organization, in a community where I could feel at home like I did in Israel. I’m so proud to have made aliyah and lived in Israel like my grandparents and moms’ brothers’ family did when they moved there from Russian in the early 90s. My cousins even skated in the Vancouver and Torino Olympics representing the State of Israel.
When my family immigrated to America, in the early 90s, my cousins and I went to Yeshiva for a few years. There, I remember learning the most basic words, and prayers and concepts of my Jewish faith, but growing up I felt a large void in me: I could recall the words of the prayers, but I had no idea what they meant or why they were said. I always wanted to take a “back to basics Judaism 101” class to fill in the history of everything I remembered. Unfortunately, a fulltime job hasn’t afforded me the chance to take those classes, but I at least immerse myself every day with the knowledge of daily, monthly, and yearly traditions, rituals and experiences.
As my daughter grows up I want to show her that I am part of a historical chain of tradition. I didn’t have the opportunity to have a Jewish upbringing in the same way that she will today. As an adult with the support of my family and working Jewish environment, as well as the connection I have to Israel and Judaism, I feel compelled to fulfill this important mitzvah to complete my Jewish identity.
I am proud to have made the decision to do this an adult. I made the cognizant decision to learn Torah and study Hebrew on a path to self-fulfillment, a path very different than the one on which I started out.
Sometimes, misty, unclear desires in our minds begin to coalesce into a loose idea. Our unconscious mind draws some ideas to the foreground of our attention without us knowing why. This may take months…or even years. Gradually, actions and deeds follow thoughts and desires to fruition. When the deed is done, we can explore our motivation and bring past experience to bear upon why thoughts, feelings, and actions finally burst forth in the present moment.
So, why have I chosen this moment in time, to become a bat mitzvah? As a young person, I lacked the attention span, the motivation, and, frankly, the interest, to pursue Jewish studies. This was partially a result of the relative orthodoxy of the religious tenets then existing, even in Reform Judaism. The Torah portion for today, Achrei Mot from the Book of Leviticus, contains what I feel are largely anachronistic and plain way-out-there rules and regulations that Jews are commanded to follow in everyday life. I am sure I was turned off by that as a thirteen-year-old. Today’s Reform Judaism allows us to make informed, educated decisions as to how, why, and which rules to follow; this vision of Jewish identity is extremely appealing to me.
As an adult, my interest and motivation slowly picked up steam. My beloved husband Bill grew up in a Conservative household with considerable Jewish education. My beloved daughters Ellie and Erica attended The Epstein School and The Davis Academy. Both became B’not mitzvah here at Temple Emanu-El, studied Hebrew in college, and went on Birthright. Fast forward, my granddaughters Romy and Phoebe are now attending Chabad preschool in Charlotte. I am surprised when Romy, at 2, touches a mezuzah and kisses her hand, and when she recites Shabbat prayers. My daughters read and understand Hebrew and have made Judaism a part of their everyday lives, adapting customs in their own individual ways. I witnessed all this with growing interest.
My husband and daughters appreciate their Judaic education and upbringing. It serves a moral and ethical purpose, even more so when we are mature enough to appreciate what it offers. Along with the counsel of parents, teachers, and peers, this guidance is another “voice inside our head,” directing behavior and nurturing our souls. I wanted the nuts and bolts of the teachings, or at least the seeds of the teachings, as another paradigm, another way through toward understanding the world, people, and my soul. I seek a deeper connection with my husband, daughters, and grandchildren and wanted to show them it is okay to pick up where you left off (ahem!) 50 years ago. Having a bat or bar mitzvah at my “advanced” age has so many obvious advantages: no distractions of junior high and exams, and no raging hormones. I do feel more of a connection with my family and a grounding in my heritage.
I believe that the seeds of spirituality were planted in me at a very young age. But they were not properly cultivated and nurtured. With the right doors opening, roots took hold and my choice is to pursue this journey wherever it takes me. Today, my journey took me here!
It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
Pirkei Avot 2:21
A religious journey is personal and communal at the same time. My journey began at the age of 14. As an adolescent, I yearned for the community that I found in the youth group and as a teaching assistant at The Temple. Celebrating holidays, studying for confirmation, developing programs became part of my life. But I was not alone, Rabbis, teachers, and friends cleared the path and walked with me on this journey. The classroom was a perfect place for me as I educated first graders about the holidays. In the beginning, I was both a teacher and a student. Israel was also a part of my beginning, with my first visit in 1972. As a high school girl, I enjoyed the trip meeting other kids from Atlanta and when I returned got busy with life.
Twenty-five years later, the summer before my son’s Bar Mitzvah, I returned to Israel as an educator, with a group of educators from the three Jewish Day Schools in Atlanta. As a group, we explored the land and people of Israel and worked on developing a curriculum to teach our young students how to respect each other and work together. Over the course of the years that followed I taught and taught and taught. In addition, I kept a Jewish home that became a sanctuary for my family and a loud and celebratory space for holidays.
When I visited Israel last Fall, I wanted something to remind me of my journey and the text I’ve quoted above fit perfectly. It is engraved on a bracelet that I wear most days. Often, the simplest tasks can be overwhelming, depending on all the other demands on our lives. Over the years I have had my moments of both utter despair and total joy. And in those moments of both despair and joy, I was surrounded by family, friends, and yes, teachers. Becoming a bat mitzvah today does not end my journey; rather, it is just another step in my quest for Jewish knowledge. It was the completion of one task, which undoubtedly will lead to another.
I want to thank those who again walked with me: Matt especially, family and friends and most importantly Rabbi Rachael and Rabbi Max who so warmly and with excitement, brought this program to Temple Emanu-El.
At the age of 76, I am proud to become a Bat Mitzvah today to continue in the tradition of l’dor v’dor. My grandfather on my father’s side founded an Orthodox shul in New Jersey, but my mother’s family were “cultural Jews” and not too religious. I grew up in a suburb of New York City (Yonkers), where my family belonged to a Conservative synagogue. At that time, in the ‘40s and ’50s, boys were expected to study Hebrew, become Bar Mitzvah, and read from the Torah, but not girls. My Jewish education ended after fifth grade, and I never learned to read Hebrew. The New York metropolitan area has a large Jewish population and I was comfortable identifying as a Jewish person and considered being Jewish to be positive.
Over 55 years ago, I married a Jewish man from Philadelphia, who was raised in a Reform congregation and knew a lot more about Judaism than I did, and we joined a Reform synagogue.
We always think that l’dor v’dor is passing on Jewish tradition from the older generation to the younger generation, but sometimes it can work a little in reverse. When our oldest child was 8, at her request, we built our first Sukkah. Along with my 4 children, I began to celebrate and learn about Jewish holidays that I never knew much about, such as Purim. Times change and our children, 2 boys and 2 girls, all became B’nai Mitzvah (from 1988 to 1994). They all became confirmed in tenth grade (2 here at Temple Emanu-El after we moved to Georgia) and all continued their Jewish education to high school graduation. I helped chair a committee to send Temple Emanu-El college students Jewish holiday information and treats. Over the years, our family has hosted many Seders, continued to construct and decorate our own Succah with family and friends, and made an effort to celebrate Shabbat dinner together. Temple Emanu-El has provided many opportunities to continue Jewish learning, and a synagogue trip to Israel in 2006 was both educational and fun.
My oldest grandchild in Columbia, Missouri, became a Bat Mitzvah in October 2017. Even though my 4 children and oldest grandchild could read Hebrew and read from the Torah, I still could not. I was excited when Temple Emanu-El offered the opportunity for an Adult B’nai Mitzvah class! Not only was this class an opportunity to learn to read Hebrew, but also a chance to become better informed and think about many different topics related to aspects of Judaism, synagogue services, and prayer. For me, becoming a Bat Mitzvah and reading from the Torah means I will be more connected to the traditions that have held the Jewish community together for thousands of years. Also, I want my 5 grandchildren to know that you are never too old to continue your Jewish education and learn something new!
In the portion of the Torah that I read this morning, Aaron talks about performing a ritual on Yom Kippur.
11 “Aaron shall bring his sin offering bull, and shall [initiate] atonement for himself and for his household, and he shall [then] slaughter his sin offering bull 12 And he shall take a pan full of burning coals from upon the altar, from before the Lord, and both hands' full of fine incense, and bring [it] within the dividing curtain.
In Judaism, there are many types of rituals and traditions. WikiDIff.com describes a ritual as a rite; a repeated set of actions. Additionally, tradition is described as a part of the culture that is passed from person to person or generation to generation, possibly differing in detail from family to family, such as the way to celebrate the holiday. For example, we see these rituals and traditions at the beginning of Shabbat, during a naming a baby, in the blessings before a meal, or in how we celebrate Sukkot and Passover. I have always enjoyed these rituals and traditions as they have made me feel connected to the Jewish community.
One day I saw an email from Temple Emanu-El announcing a B’nai Mitzvah class. Without hesitation I registered, after all, both my children became Bar and Bat Mitzvah here at Temple Emanu-El, and now it’s my turn. Through the rituals of this service, I am able to achieve a spiritual connection that my ancestors have been performing for thousands of years. Today, I continue that legacy of ritual by having the honor of becoming Bat Mitzvah. These rituals and traditions are what connects me to my community.
In Aaron’s day, rituals were prescribed by God to atone for sins. We still use rituals today, although they may not be prescribed by God, they are rituals nonetheless. Rituals ground us. They bring us to a place we cannot reach without them. Some people have rituals or traditions they do each morning or each night and they may not even realize they are doing these rituals. Do you say the same thing to your parent every time you hang up the phone? Do you call a grandparent on a particular night of the week? Rituals are larger than ourselves, they connect us to others and to other places in time.
L’Dor V’Dor… May our rituals and traditions always continue from generation to generation. I would like to thank Cantor Adesnik for her joyous spirit and enthusiasm when teaching us chanting and song, and Rabbi Spike for all his stories about history and Torah. Most of all I would like to thank Rabbi Rachael and Rabbi Max for their continued support with my Judaic studies and Hebrew learning in helping me achieve success today. Thank you all again for your time to help me become Bat Mitzvah. I have met a wonderful group of people in the process. I would also like to thank all my family and friends for joining me today to celebrate my ritual, my Bat Mitzvah.
I've lived a full life filled with ups, downs, and regrets. I came to a point of reflection and decided to take consequential inventory, assessment, and action that ultimately has led me to this moment of Adult Bar Mitzvah.
What I have determined through my analysis is that Hashem (God) has given passage to me to unlock and accept my decisions, whether I believed them to be right or wrong after the fact, as the catalyst of renewing my soul and convictions.
I began to understand why HaShem has been directing and controlling my life through the system of reward and punishment. All the occurrences and incidents that have taken place in my life have been a test of conversion from one form to another.
Every decision that I have made has shaped me and brought me to this moment of glee and the person I am today.
I stand before you as a Jew, not in pretense or self-deception, but as a human-being whom Hashem has shaped. All my experiences led my Neshamah (Soul) to this moment of euphoria and exhilaration.
The Adult Bar Mitzvah culminates the final confirmation that my heart, body, and soul no longer are in search of the right path, but rather a revelation--a declaration of submission--to follow Hashem.
If I've made a decision, whether right or wrong, I now pray in comfort and solace that I have fulfilled the obligation and covenant God has given to the way to live through the Torah. For me, God is the master molder who has defined my very essence and brought me to this purposeful moment.
I have often reflected, as a convert to Judaism, that I never felt more connected to Judaism than when I was the least Jewish. Obviously, this sounds like an oxymoron, but it was during the conversion process, with its required weekly rabbinic study sessions, Saturday morning early Torah study groups, regular synagogue attendance, and more, that I felt very connected to Judaism. The conversion process was comparable to spiritual Cross-Fit and I felt healthy. Every Saturday, after the early Torah study, I would stay for the service and watch the weekly Bar/Bat Mitzvah at Washington Hebrew Congregation. At that time, I had no idea how much effort it required to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah; however, I was always so impressed by the parents’ speeches. The pride, love, and clear support was evident and the public affirmations, I could tell, were a tremendous confidence builder for these young people about to enter their teenage years. It was this experience that solidified my hope to one day become a Bar Mitzvah. It’s obviously different as an adult but no less meaningful. During this B’nai Mitzvah process, I’ve been motivated to share this experience with my daughters who will soon each prepare for their own Bat Mitzvah.
I believe the Torah is divine and provides a model of how to live a righteous and meaningful life. In many ways, Leviticus details the instructions to build that model life, not necessarily in a literal sense, as many requirements are now impossible to fulfill in 2019, but it shows the importance of rules, details, rituals, preparation, and morality. My specific portion details the consequences of sacrificing an animal without bringing it into the Tent of Meeting as a sacrifice to the Lord. I read this as a warning about “slippery slopes,” as any sacrifice that is not offered to the Lord could easily lead to polytheism. The Lord says that a violation of this ritual rule will result in the perpetrator being cut off from the Israelites. God does not say that the punishment will be death, but banishment from the people whose central core belief is monotheism. I see my passage as a warning to avoid situations that could lead to dire consequences.
I learned, during my conversion more than 15 years ago, about Maimonides. While I studied him, under the direction of Rabbi Joui Hessel, I remember feeling as if I had learned of him sooner, I would likely have converted earlier. It seemed that my self-taught spirituality aligned well with the great Jewish philosopher from 900 years ago. I always felt an affinity towards Judaism. My biological father was Jewish; however, I was not raised in a Jewish home. I developed my spirituality by learning history, questioning concepts, listening to opinions, and exposing myself to the philosophies of others. Reading about Maimonides was one of the first times that I recall feeling like my spiritual ideas were being validated. We spent time during the B’nai Mitzvah process learning about Maimonides. It was moving to be taken back to my conversion process. It was as though Maimonides provided me with validation, many “ah-ha” moments, and now has linked my conversion to my Bar Mitzvah.
If I were asked by someone considering an adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah, I would – without hesitation – recommend it. Tuesday is my favorite day of the week (the day our class is held). I’ve been inspired by my amazing classmates. I’m more deeply connected to my Judaism, my synagogue, and have met some very friendly, motivated, and impressive people. We’re already planning get-togethers for when the class ends. If the person contemplating a Bar/Bat Mitzvah were still apprehensive, I may offer to attend with them, as there’s always more to learn and who wouldn’t benefit from a spiritual Cross-Fit?
In honor of those that have guided me in my spiritual journey, I am casting away my default conversion Hebrew name, David, son of Abraham and Sarah (דוד בן אברהם ושרה), and adopting Melech Yaakov Reuven (מלך יעקוב ראובן). Respectfully named after Rabbi Joui Hessel, Rabbi Max Miller, and Rabbi Rachel Miller. Coincidentally, also after my wonderful sisters-in-law, Melissa and Rachel, and my amazing wife Jamie. Guess it’s באַשערט (beshert), meant to be.
Having grown up in England with European influences, I found our study of the History of Judaism in the Western Hemisphere particularly interesting and with direct connections to my own personal experiences. At the time in England when I began to study Judaism at the age of 19 – I would go to synagogue and sit with the “older generation” some of whom were Holocaust Survivors or at least had escaped from Europe in the 1940s. Many of these people were German Jews who had grown up with Liberal Judaism, feeling accepted into mainstream German society, yet they had been at best expelled from Europe and at worst expunged.
Why do I mention this? From Rabbi Max’s topic of study, it was obvious during the Enlightenment in France Jews were allowed to practice their faith but were always under suspicion of wanting to be a nation within a nation. By 1911 Rabbi Kaufman Kohler states in his address of The Concordance of Judaism and Americanism 1911, “American Judaism – What power of inspiration lies in these two words. How God spoke to the fugitive Spanish Jews, to the German, Galician and Russian Jews to immigrate to the United States. Whilst the UK has mostly been a tolerant society for Jews to live in, when I moved to the US and began to attend services firstly in Brookfield, CT and then at Temple Emanu-El, Atlanta, Judaism felt to me much more “mainstream” in American society at large, and one never or rarely felt uncomfortable in any situation revealing one’s Judaism. In contrast, this was not always the case in the UK. Thus this particular study topic made me realize that in Europe Jews were accepted yet marginalized, whilst in the US they are a fully integrated group overall.
My personal journey into Judaism began in Birmingham, UK under the guidance of Rabbi David Zucker who was an American Rabbi working in the UK. He was a guide, a friend – and still is today! He went on to officiate at the marriages of both my daughters here in Atlanta along with Rabbi Stanley Davids. Rabbi Zucker has been a guiding light throughout our lives.
Therefore, when I saw the opportunity to become a B’nai Mitzvah, I felt it would be the culmination of many years having practiced Judaism, having seen both my daughters Bat Mitzvah, and now my grandchildren are beginning to prepare for theirs. I wanted them to be able to look at their “Nana” and know that I understand what they are doing, working towards, and clearly that I think it is a most important part of life. Not to mention being able to read the prayers more fluently from the Hebrew texts.
Finally, I would like to thank Rabbi Anderson, who has shared many interesting topics and ideas, and of course Rabbis Rachael and Max who tirelessly listened to our struggles with the Hebrew alphabet and language. I feel privileged to be a B’nai Mitzvah as so many before me, as it states in The Talmud, Customs are more powerful than laws.
Why have you chosen to become a Bat Mitzvah at this time?
It is not easy to answer this question. It wasn't even easy to choose this question to answer. It requires some exploration and thought. When I was growing up, all of the Jewish boys were becoming Bar Mitzvah. Very few girls were. As a result, I thought that this was for my brothers but not for me. Twenty-two years later, my daughter told me that she wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah. She did and it was very special. Two and a half years after that, my son became a Bar Mitzvah and again, it was very special. During this same time period, my nephews and my niece became Bar and Bat Mitzvah and these were joyous occasions. Yet, it was still not for me. When Temple Emanuel began offering adult B'nai Mitzvah, Alvin would say to me “you should do that" and I would say "no, it's not for me". So why was it different this time? I had a strong desire to learn Hebrew again. I had forgotten a lot of what I had learned as a youth in Hebrew school. It was not hard for me then, but it IS now. Perhaps I wanted to study Hebrew to connect with my Jewish roots. Perhaps it is because when I hear Israelis speaking conversational Hebrew, it warms my heart. I have always cherished the fact that Israelis chose this ancient language when they established the Jewish state. Perhaps it is because I think it would make my parents happy. Most likely, it is for all three reasons. So, thank you, Alvin, for persisting. And it is important for me to say that I wanted to take this journey with others who were interested in doing the same thing, and that has made it even more meaningful.
Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, boys had bar mitzvahs, girls took dancing lessons. My parents didn’t feel it was important for me to have a bat mitzvah, besides it wouldn’t be a real one because girls didn’t read from the Torah. My brother had a bar mitzvah and I took piano lessons. After college and law school, I moved to Washington, DC and joined a wonderful conservative congregation. I loved that congregation but often felt distant because my Jewish knowledge was lacking. So with a few friends, I joined an adult Jewish learning class, one the Rabbi had designed for some members who wanted to convert. Together we began a journey of Jewish learning that was to culminate in B’nai Mitzvah. I was learning things I never learned or had completely forgotten. Yet even in the late 70s as the feminist movement was growing stronger no one expected or even would have allowed a woman to read from Torah. It just wasn’t done. Our Rabbi was pushing the congregation to allow fuller participation by women in services, but even allowing women on the bema to say an aliyah was a big step for our conservative congregation. So I quieted my feminist Jewish soul and became a Bat Mitzvah by saying my aliyah. Then decades later I watched my daughter become a Bat Mitzvah. She stood tall and proud and fearless on the bema, read from the Torah and gave her D’var Torah. There was no question she would read from the Torah. I was so proud of her. Days and weeks and months later, reflecting on her Bat Mitzvah and my adult Bat Mitzvah, I knew that I wanted, needed to fill the hole in my spiritual life by completing the journey I had begun so many years ago. I never felt I had truly become a Bat Mitzvah because I did not read from the Torah, as so many men, and now women, had done before me. So on May 4 I will complete that part of my spiritual journey and read from Torah, however haltingly, however imprecisely, with a full heart.
About 6 months ago a total of 19 adults congregants of Temple Emanu-El embarked on a journey. The Temple gave us adults the opportunity to learn what was required to participate in a B’nei Mitzvah as well as provide a wide foundation of Jewish knowledge in areas such as theology, holidays, Shabbat, Jewish history, and liturgy. I now realize just how lacking my Jewish education was.
As a child growing up in The Bronx in a Jewish/Irish neighborhood I was provided with a good laic education starting with elementary school and ending with a Bachelor’s degree from City College. But, my Jewish education was virtually non-existent.
My older brother was sent to an Orthodox Synagogue to learn Hebrew and prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. On the occasion of his being called to the Torah, I entered a synagogue for the first time in my life.
I was sent to Sunday School at a different Synagogue. By week 3 we had learned the letter Alef and the prayer for lighting the Shabbas candles. Unfortunately, (hopefully good fortune for her) our teacher got married and didn’t return. The end of that phase of my education.
We did celebrate holidays with family and traditional food. But, we did not go to services except on the occasion of a Bar Mitzvah. In later life, I joined a Reform Synagogue near my home in White Plains and went to High Holiday services, but did not really understand what was going on. And, several years after I moved to Georgia I joined Temple Emanu-El. But here too I mainly attended services on the High Holidays.
Then the opportunity arose to participate in our adult B’nei Mitzvah. Rabbi Rachel was so encouraging when I went to speak with her about my fears. I entered the classroom with much trepidation, not knowing if I would be capable of doing something as daunting as this. Knowing the difficulty I had in language classes when I was much younger, the idea of learning a new alphabet that uses unfamiliar characters was frightening at times, but something I aspired to. And so, I took the plunge.
Now the time is near. The 19 of us will be called to read from the Torah and participate in the Shabbat service on 29 Nisan 5779 (May 4, 2019) at 10:00 a.m. in the Sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El. I feel blessed to have shared this experience with such wonderful teachers and classmates.
Although I did not become a Bat Mitzvah as a child, I feel that I have always been a very spiritual person. I did attend religious school through confirmation in 10th grade. The confirmation class was, by far, my favorite part. We spent the year writing on different topics, and it really made me think about Judaism and even the meaning of life.
I was always interested in learning more about Judaism and Hebrew. In college, I took a year of Hebrew and it was the highlight of my freshman year at Tulane. I also took a refresher course as an adult at the JCC when my children were very young.
When Scott and I were deciding where to send our daughter for kindergarten, we debated between the merits of a Jewish Day School education and a secular private school or public school. In the end, we sent Allison to Davis Academy and our son, Eric, followed in the same path a few years later. When the children were in elementary school, I tried my best to attend the Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday mornings. I think I enjoyed these times as much (or maybe more) than my children. It was so special to be there as these children prayed and sang. I was also able to learn many of the prayers for the first time.
Allison and Eric celebrated their B’nai Mitzvah at Temple Emanuel. It was amazing to go through the process with both of them. Scott and I are so proud of all that they accomplished. Both Allison and Eric are adults now, and I know that Judaism remains an important part of their lives.
In the Fall of 2018, Eric started college. Scott is now following his dream of obtaining an MBA. When I found out that Temple Emanuel was having an adult b’nai mitzvah class, I knew that I had to take advantage of the opportunity.
As we delved into different topics in our class, I found myself thinking about spirituality once again. What IS the meaning of life? How can we live our lives in a meaningful way? How can we make an impact on others and on the world? I do believe that our lives matter. I think that we should try to live the best life that we can. I have come up with an acronym to explain how I try to live. It is GRIT and it stands for Gratitude, Responsibility, Integrity, and Thoughtfulness.
Gratitude is so important. It makes us acknowledge the greatness in our lives and allows us to recognize that many of these great things originate outside of ourselves. Many people think that gratitude is the key to a happy life. “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow” Melody Beattie
Responsibility is taking accountability for our own actions. It involves having respect for ourselves and others. Responsible people are honest, compassionate, reliable, and trustworthy. They don’t blame others when things don’t go as planned. Social responsibility allows us to make our community and our world a better place. “If you realize your responsibility, you will realize your destiny” Tasneem Hameed
Integrity comes from the word integer, which means whole or complete. It’s doing the right thing and involves more than just honesty. People with integrity are authentic (whole) and they believe in being fair to others. “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching” C.S. Lewis
Thoughtfulness is being kind to others; not thinking of ourselves first. It also means that we should think about what we’re doing and live in the moment. “We are here to change the world with small acts of thoughtfulness done daily rather than with one great breakthrough” Harold S. Kushner
Thanks to Rabbis Rachael, Max, and Spike, and Cantor Adesnik for all the time and effort they put in to make our paths successful!
Twenty-two. A number commanding my attention as there are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Intimidated by these strange and mysterious symbols. I couldn’t tell a Chet from a Tet or a Dalet from a Reish, forget about the complicated configuration of dots, accent marks and plus signs that seemed to float on the page. How would I master those letters, I wondered, string them together to create real words and ultimately read from the Torah? Jews are called the People of the Book but I had never read from this sacred text. In 2014 and then again in 2017, I watched my daughters read so beautifully at their Bat Mitzvahs (as I know my son will do when it’s his turn) and decided to follow in their footsteps. These were the thoughts swirling in my head as I registered for the class.
I was half-way through my first lesson when I gained some valuable insight: reading from the Torah, while noble in pursuit, was just the beginning of the journey. Under the tutelage of Rabbis Max and Rachael Miller, along with dynamic instructors like Rabbi Spike Anderson and Cantor Lauren Adesnik, I deepened my knowledge of Judaism and explored my spiritual identity. Yes, I learned to read the Hebrew alphabet. Yes, I learned to string letters into words and decode those enigmatic vowels. Along the way, however, I discovered that my quest for knowledge was both broader and deeper than originally defined.
For two hours each week, I had the privilege of bringing my best self to class, of asking big questions and exploring big ideas. With an open mind and giving heart, my classmates and I challenged ourselves through study and debate. We discussed religion and culture through the lens of Reform Judaism. We considered the history of Jews in Europe, Israel, and America as well as the most cherished creation of the Jewish spirit, Shabbat. We learned about Jewish holidays, music as a vehicle for prayer and the sages’ perspective about the afterlife. We discussed the concept of Tikkun Olam or repairing cracks in our fragile world by performing acts of Social Justice. The contemplative practice of Mussar, a framework for nurturing one’s soul and living a life of purpose and meaning, struck a particular chord with me.
All of this from one class you ask? Yes, I tell you! The simple answer is yes. I am profoundly grateful for the gift I gave myself, for carving out time each week to not only study Hebrew but to learn more about my religion, culture, and most importantly, myself.
In June of 1984, I proudly had a Bat Mitzvah on a Friday night. I grew up in Louisville, KY and to the surprise of most, I was raised in a very Traditional Synagogue. Girls were not allowed to read from the Torah so I led the Friday night Shabbat Service and chanted a Haftorah. As I look back, I never questioned why I wasn’t able to read from the Torah. It wasn’t that important to me as a young teen and I just accepted that it was something girls didn’t do. I continued on my Jewish path of learning with Confirmation, trips to Israel, Jewish summer camp and BBYO. I certainly was connected to my Judaism but as I grew into an adult I began to feel a desire to connect in different ways.
After getting married and having kids, we joined Temple Emanu El where I truly began to ask questions and understand what Reform Judaism was all about. It was like a light bulb that went off letting me know, “you can read from the Torah”. I watched my own daughter become a Bat Mitzvah beautifully leading the service and embracing the Torah and her teachings. From there I made a deal with myself that someday I would do the same. Of course, finding the time would be the challenge. I’m proud to say I volunteer often while raising my children and running a business. However, I was overwhelmed and decided I would step back a bit from volunteering and make the time to accomplish my goal of engaging in Jewish Learning. I was yearning to go deeper in ways I would really only understand later. And that’s where the perfect timing comes in. I learned about the B’nai Mitzvah class and immediately felt this was my opportunity. It was a big commitment but I knew I had to push myself. I’m so incredibly grateful I did.
Rabbi Max and Rabbi Rachel have led me and my classmates to this day with such amazing knowledge, guidance, and patience. Each week we advanced our Hebrew skills then spent quality time in a deep discussion that left me in awe of who we are as Jewish people. I can’t thank them enough along with Rabbi Spike and Cantor Lauren for challenging me to take this step both physically and spiritually. Many thanks also to my husband Josh, kids Emma and Levi, for knowing my Tuesday nights were always booked and supporting and encouraging me through all these months. Lastly, if you too are looking for an opportunity for Jewish learning and Torah study, take advantage of our clergy who will lead you to a powerful place.
If I am not for myself, who is for me? And being for my own self, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?” -Hillel.
When reading this quote from Rabbi Hillel, the last phrase inspired me. This is the time that I choose to become a Bat Mitzvah. I have wanted to become an adult Bat Mitzvah for a long time. The time was not always right. I was always busy with family and work responsibilities. Although I still have those responsibilities, now the time is right for me. It is never too late to seize the moment. I want to take the next step in my journey to a deeper understanding of Judaism. I was not born into the Jewish religion. I became a Jew by choice in 1989. I have been a Jew longer than I have not. My husband and his family have taught me so much about Judaism. My daughters have taught me so much as well. While going through their Bat Mitzvah journeys with them, I was deeply moved. They all inspired me to take my own journey to become a Bat Mitzvah.
I want to become more connected to the Jewish people and our Temple Emanu-El congregation. By learning Hebrew and the prayers, I am making that connection. I will feel able to communally recite and sing the prayers of the service with the congregation and gain a sense of deeper belonging. I want to be a part of the sacred link between the past and the future that is shared by all Jews. I want to have the honor of being called to the Bimah and read from the Torah. These are all reasons that I have chosen to become a Bat Mitzvah.
On a trip to Israel this past summer, I learned so much and felt a great desire to be more fully connected to the Tree of Life and the Jewish people. It was truly a deep and meaningful experience for me. While traveling from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, from the Kotel to Masada, from the Dead Sea to the Golan and many other places in Israel, I felt a great desire to become more fully immersed in Judaism. The next obvious step for me to accomplish this connection is to become a Bat Mitzvah. So here I am!
This class has brought me closer to other members of the Temple Emanu-El community who are also seeking the goal of becoming B’nei Mitzvah. They are people of all different backgrounds and stages in their lives and have many different reasons for doing this. I applaud them all! This class was not just about learning Hebrew. We learned about many different Judaic topics and history. We had lectures from all three of our Rabbis and our Cantor. I feel that this has brought me closer to our Clergy and congregation. This is the connection that I wanted. Thank you for making this fulfilling opportunity available to me and our congregation.
Above the piano in my parents’ home hung a picture with the famous saying from Hillel, the renowned sage and scholar: “If I am not for myself who is for me? And if not now, when?”
When I heard about the B’nai Mitzvah class at Temple, these words came to my mind. I thought about registering for a while and called Rabbi Rachel with some questions. She told me I was a good fit for the class and would benefit from the experience. Who can argue with a Rabbi? I decided to register. This class would give me the opportunity to do something I was not able to do when I had my Bat Mitzvah in Queens, NY. In the Conservative/Orthodox synagogue where I grew up, girls couldn’t read from the Torah, and even the Haftorah portion was off limits. I saw this class as a chance to do just that. I was also interested in learning about the beliefs and traditions that Reform Judaism presents, and reconnecting with my Jewish studies. I knew that “now” was my time to take advantage of the opportunity.
Once I made the decision, I never looked back. While I could read Hebrew fairly well before taking the class, I have enjoyed coming to each Tuesday evening and bonding with the other learners. Moreover, the Judaics classes presented each week by all of our clergy have been interesting, informative and relevant. It has been such a joy to have the opportunity to discuss a wide range of Jewish topics while not having the stress of homework and preparation. Of course, further study has been encouraged and I have many books on my reading list.
From Leviticus 16:1-18:30, our Torah portion, Achrei Mot means “after the death,” and refers to the fact that these laws were given “after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” The reading describes the priestly rituals for Yom Kippur, sacrificial offerings required of the Israelites, and dietary restrictions including the lines I read prohibiting eating anything with blood. It also lists forbidden sexual relationships. I read the translation through several times and parts were difficult to understand. As with much of Torah, it requires us to dig deeper and look to Rabbinic interpretations. We discussed in class that discussing text and asking questions to gain meaning is central to our tradition.
I am deeply moved to be here on the Bimah, yad in hand. I would like to thank all our clergy for their expert teaching and perspective. Rabbi Spike taught us so much and shared wonderful stories. He told us about Jacob wrestling with the Angel and its depiction in the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) hanging here in our sanctuary. Cantor Adesnik also mentioned Jacob’s struggle as connected with the words we recite in the Shema, and she taught us prayers in her beautiful voice. My deepest appreciation goes to Rabbi Rachel and Rabbi Max for making this class possible. They organized an excellent syllabus, planned the details and taught us so much about Judaism, and ourselves. For me, it has been an enriching experience and I hope to continue my Jewish learning. Rabbi Rachel had it right.
In my childhood, I had no religious upbringing, although my father told me once that I was baptized Methodist. I think our family went to church on Easter Sunday until I was around 10 and then we never went again. My parents never spoke about religion or beliefs or God. When I was 11, I declared myself a Zen Buddhist. I had no idea what that was, but it was exotic and gave me a cool answer if anyone asked about my church habits. (To give you some idea of the maturity of my decision-making at that age, I also declared I was going to be a neurosurgeon, based solely on the fact that it too was exotic and Ben Casey wore the coolest scrubs I’d ever seen.) And that was that for many years.
In my early thirties, I began to have the feeling that something was missing from my life. I attended various Protestant churches, but they weren’t right for me. In my early forties, the feelings arose again and were much stronger. I knew I felt extremely uncomfortable in churches. I couldn’t believe in Jesus as messiah, nor could I believe he was the only path to God. So at least I’d narrowed down my search a little. Catholicism and Protestantism were definitely out. Would it turn out that I really was a Zen Buddhist? Further study convinced me that I was not (nor am I a neurosurgeon—so much for my childhood prognostications). Then one day, I heard Harold Kushner speaking about Judaism. I felt like he was talking just to me. I immediately read all his books and then started devouring other books about the faith. It seemed to fit. But I wasn’t ready to convert—not yet. I became very involved in Unitarian Universalism; I even became a lay minister. I performed marriages and memorial services, did pastoral counseling, and assisted with and led services. I have given a lot of thought to why I got so involved and felt so at home in the UU church. I think it was the sense of community, something which has been sorely lacking in my life. And I didn’t feel forced to believe any particular doctrine, the way I did in Christian churches. Actually, I didn’t feel the need to change my behavior or my life at all. And therein lay the rub. I think religion should make me feel I need to change. I believe in God. I want to live a better life based on my faith. UU could not accommodate that.
I came back to Judaism with a renewed sense that it was absolutely the right place for me. I had sown my religious wild oats and, as they say in pet adoption circles, I found my forever home and converted. In some ways, I feel that I’ve always been Jewish, I just didn’t know it. I love the emphasis on orthopraxis instead of the single narrow focus on orthodoxy I found in Christian churches. I love the value placed on intelligent grappling with ideas and beliefs. I love the fact that Jews all over the world are reading the same Torah passage on the Sabbath. I love the rituals, I love the prayer book, I love the Torah, I love services, and I love the connection with Jews throughout space and time.
But something was still missing. When I moved back to Atlanta last July and came back to Temple Emanu-El, I learned there was going to be an Adult B’nei Mitzvah class. The angels sang (so to speak). I wanted to become Bat Mitzvah. I wanted to be able to read the Torah on the bimah in front of the congregation. I wanted to take my place as an adult (at least in Jewish eyes). I wanted to deepen my knowledge of and connection to Judaism. It’s been an interesting year. I can read (and by read I mean pronounce) Hebrew and I am learning to chant. I know more about Judaism and about how much there is I don’t know. I’ve connected with a community of like-minded seekers. When I stand on the bimah with the rest of my classmates and chant my small Torah portion, it will be one more step, an important one, in my Jewish journey. I don’t know where that journey will ultimately take me; I can’t wait to find out.
“Sacrifices, Peace Offerings, and Pleasant Aromas”
Leviticus 17: 5-6
On the first day of our Adult Binei Mitzvah class, Rabbi Max and Rabbi Rachael brought us together and asked us why we were here. The universal reply to that important first question was we could not have done it “before”. I could not have become a Bat Mitzvah in the synagogue where I grew up, because it wasn’t an option for girls at that time. If I had become a Bat Mitzvah as a young girl, my grandparents, and my parents, would have been in attendance. Today, in their place, I stand before my three magnificent children, their spouses, and my grandchildren, along with friends and family that I treasure. I believe this is the greater, Why Now reason. I stand before them perhaps in a similar fashion to the way Adonoi spoke to Moses, who then spoke to Aaron, and then to his sons, and all the children of Israel as described in my Torah portion in Leviticus, chapter 17, verses 5-6. The book of Leviticus speaks of sacrifice, all kinds of sacrifice. I left my NY home when I graduated from college and have resided in Atlanta most of my adult life. I had my daughter at the young age of twenty-three and my son fifteen months later. Within fifteen months of his birth, I was a single mom, in a small town in Tennessee trusting my neighbors to care for my two babies while I worked fifty hours per week. A sacrifice can be defined as a loss of something (precious) you give up for the sake of a better cause. I can look back and identify the many sacrifices I have made with good intentions.
When the children of Israel brought their sacrifices in my Torah portion, they brought them to “the open field”. I interpret that to mean its ok to be open and transparent about what we sacrifice. We as Jews should be giving up a portion of what is valuable to us. Hannah fulfilled her vow to God when she brought Samuel to the temple. The amazing lesson in that story found in 1 Samuel along with my Torah portion, is the concept of making the sacrifice of a peace offering to the L-rd. The priest took the offering and sprinkled the blood on the Lord’s altar at the door of the Tent of Meeting, and burned the fat, in the open field for a pleasant aroma. A pleasant aroma calls attention to our senses, evoking past events with more potency than any other sense we possess. I would like to live in a similar fashion, making a peace sacrifice that would be a pleasant aroma, one that would not be forgotten in the senses of my children and Grandchildren.
Today, I am called to read from the Torah in front of my children. Just as the children of Israel spent 40 years wandering in the desert, I have spent the last 40 years wandering in my faith, my identity, and as a member of the Jewish community. When I first came to Temple Emanu-El, I felt excited to be in the sanctuary. I was happy to be holding the prayer book, and a little sad that all the Hebrew I learned as a child wasn’t helping me so much, so I had to focus on the transliteration pages to follow along. When I met with Rabbi Colbert and talked about membership, I inquired about an opportunity to become a Bat Mitzvah, and four and a half years later, here I am. Thank you Rabbi Max and Rabbi Rachael, who taught us with patience and kindness. Thank you to Rabbi Spike, and Cantor Adesnik, who came and taught us in the second hour. Thank you to my classmates for being so supportive. I hope we will become lifelong friends. Lastly, thank you to Adonai, who brought me to this joyous occasion. May you find me to be a pleasant aroma in your sight.
The rabbis asked what inspired us to want to become a b’nei mitzvah at this point in our lives. What brought us to this moment? For me, the answer is simple – I was ready.
I grew up at a time when having a bat mitzvah was just starting to become the norm. I didn’t have one and always felt that I missed out – I didn’t learn Hebrew at Sunday school and therefore, I didn’t really understand what the prayers meant. Like many kids then and now, going to synagogue was relegated to High Holidays and Sunday school - there was little engagement and little meaning in it for me. My family was culturally Jewish – we celebrated the big holidays and I was very involved in BBYO. I felt special being Jewish. But I didn’t know a lot about my religion.
When my daughter Rachel started her Hebrew tutoring for her bat mitzvah in early 2018, I was intrigued about the conversations she had with the clergy about her Torah portion, what being Jewish meant, and how could she apply it to her life. For many years prior to her bat mitzvah, I said to myself and my husband, ‘Maybe someday I’ll have a bat mitzvah.’ So, when Rabbi Max asked me one day, while I was waiting in the Temple Emanu-El lobby while Rachel was being tutored, if I knew any adults that would want to take the adult b’nei mitzvah class, I almost immediately said, ‘Me!’ The timing was right for so many reasons.
Seeing my daughter become a bat mitzvah has to be one of the proudest moments I’ve had as a parent. Despite regular reminders for her to practice her Hebrew, she embraced the process, inquisitive every step of the way. The clergy made it interesting and challenging for her. She shined and excelled beyond anything we could have imagined. I found myself surprised at some changes in myself as well, attending Friday and Saturday services with her. I looked forward to the Friday night services in particular – they were so intimate, relaxing, and inclusive. I loved the music – did I know what each song/prayer meant? No, but I left feeling uplifted and thankful. I felt at home.
Eleven days before Rachel’s bat mitzvah, my dad passed away after many years of decline. His passing, in the middle of the High Holidays, resulted in my questioning of things that I had never even given thought to before. My cultural Jewish identity began to turn into searching for more spirituality. Do I believe that G-d answers our prayers? I’m not sure. Do I understand all of the stories that we have learned in our b’nei mitzvah classes and how they bring us to how we practice our religion today? Not all, but I love hearing them and find them fascinating. Do I fully understand the timeline of the thousands of years of history of our people? No – there’s so much to learn. But I am beginning to understand that religion and a religious community can provide a place for growth, for inquiry, for healing, and for friendship.
I have found the process of becoming a bat mitzvah to be so enjoyable – something I probably wouldn’t have said at 13 years old! It isn’t easy learning Hebrew for the very first time in middle age. The brain just doesn’t work as quickly when deciphering all the letters and vowels. But I am proud of accomplishing this – something I have always felt was missing in my Judaism. The curriculum of the course was fascinating – learning about Jewish history, the liturgy of our services, the melodies of our prayers and how they have changed over time, how Judaism views gender and gender roles. But the best part of this has been going through the process with nearly 20 other adults in our community. The discussions have been challenging, thought-provoking and special. I’ve appreciated the laughing together as we learned Hebrew and mixed up letters or vowels. The camaraderie that has developed was something that I hadn’t really anticipated. And finally, the support of our amazing clergy, who have devoted countless hours in preparation and teaching. Thank you, Rabbi Spike and Cantor Adesnik. But the biggest thank yous to Rabbis Rachael and Max, who made this adventure something to look forward to each and every week. And lastly, my love to my husband Andrew and to Rachel, who told me to jump in and do it – your support and encouragement mean everything to me.