A Ritual for All Ages

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Elaine Weiss sits to her rabbi's left, her back straight, knees primly together, a look of concentration on her face. There is a full house this Sabbath evening at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Weiss's proud family is in the third pew. In minutes she will be called to the Torah to chant from the sixth chapter of the Book of Numbers, her rite of passage into full Jewish adulthood. One is tempted to say, "Today Elaine Weiss is a woman," except that she has been one a while: she is 62. Nearby sit five other Temple Israel Bat Mitzvah girls (and a Bar Mitzvah boy), ranging from their 30s to their 70s. Today they are ... happy.

It is the high summer of the adult Bat Mitzvah. The ritual retrofitting is becoming standard in Judaism's Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist branches. In the Reform movement alone, 600 of some 900 congregations offer the necessary 18-or 24-month adult preparatory courses in Hebrew, ritual and Scripture. Both Reform and Conservative movements offer guides to facilitate the adult rite. Such ceremonies, says Jack Wertheimer, provost at the Conservative arm's Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, have not only "generated the spark of transformation within individuals [but] transformed congregational life."


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The category of Bar Mitzvah ("son of the commandments") dates to the 2nd century; its formal celebration by Jewish boys goes back 500 years. Bat ("daughter") Mitzvahs, however, arose in the early 1900s and saturated liberal Judaism only in the 1970s. Inevitably, there was a generation of Jewish women who had fought for women's equal ritual participation but had themselves missed out on Bat Mitzvah training. "They got all these rights," says Lisa Grant, a professor of Jewish education at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan, "and realized that [ritually] they couldn't do anything. They felt like frauds."

Late Bat Mitzvahs were the remedy. At first they took place outside the normal congregational context. "It was, talk to a rabbi, rent a hall, have your own experience," says Grant. But gradually, congregational rabbis realized that adult Bat Mitzvah classes drew spiritually curious baby boomers and — as it turned out — were a kind of synagogue superglue. They increased morale, turned a cadre of highly motivated women into fully equipped leaders and eventually attracted men who had somehow forgone Bar Mitzvah in their youth.

By familiarizing more adults with language and liturgy, the trend helped fuel liberal Judaism's escape from a somewhat arid buy-Israel-bonds communalism into greater ritual and spiritual engagement. A case in point was Reform Judaism's 1999 public recommitment to the use of Hebrew in its services: "You've learned how to pray in Hebrew," says Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman of Reform's Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "Why shouldn't you use it?" The women's group Hadassah periodically celebrates the ascendant rite with mass Bat Mitzvahs of as many as 122 women.

But such spectacles should not obscure the singular journey implicit in every adult Bat Mitzvah, Elaine Weiss's included. Weiss grew up Orthodox. Her brothers were Bar Mitzvahed — she remembers flinging celebratory candy from the women's balcony — but she never even took Hebrew. Feeling "empty" at mostly Hebrew services, she gravitated to Reform Judaism, whose prayer book provides English translations. A son was Bar Mitzvahed at Temple Israel and two daughters Bat Mitzvahed. But something was still wrong. One day Weiss visited the grave of a grandfather who had been a rabbi. She could not read the Hebrew on his headstone.

That realization, she says, led her to the lectern tonight. Weiss gazes down at the Torah scroll and chants, "Kol y-may neez-ro" ("Throughout his term as Nazarite"). That portion of the Scripture is about a group of ancient Jews (Nazarites) who, though not born into a priestly class, find their way to holiness through personal effort. A little later on, in a speech, Weiss explains, "I feel somewhat like a Nazarite tonight."