Bat Mitzvah for non-observant, non-religious family

I was raised in a conservative but not particularly observant Jewish household. We three kids attended a nascent progressive, kind of out there, parent-led, small Jewish day school. We all had bar and bat mitzvahs and went to temple on the "high holidays" and a few other holidays and Shabbats sprinkled throughout the year. Fast forward, and all three of us kids are in our 40's and not at all connected to Judaism, or religiously affiliated at all. However, my parents are still deeply attached to their identity as Jews, more in a cultural way than a religious one, if that makes sense to some of you. I know that it makes them sad that none of their grandchildren are being raised "Jewish", though of course they are "Jew-ish." We have recently begun to explore Judaism with our kids a bit ~ we did Hanukkah with my parents this year, and we've taken them to some celebrations at the Jewish Museum. My parents have attended some of their friends' grandchildren's bar and bat mitzvahs recently, and I know they must feel a bit sad to know that they won't be attending any of their own. So...I am thinking (very tentatively) about what it might take to have a bat mitzvah for our children. How much do you have to "buy in" to the whole religion thing to do so? I remember a lot of practicing and classes etc., which does not at all appeal to me (and wouldn't to our daughter), but this was three decades ago and in a different region of the country, so perhaps things are different here/now. Are there others out there who have bat mitzvahed their kids out of deference to their parents, in a way that can still ring true to a family that has little belief in "god" and even less in organized religion? If so, what tools and resources in our community have you drawn from? Has it been costly (we are on a very modest budget). I have such deep gratitude and love for my parents that I would really love to do this for them, as I know it would bring them tremendous joy and pride. But perhaps it is too fraught and involved a road to go down without a firm commitment to Judaism from our family? Thank you.

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Your family sounds very much like ours, and this is something that we struggle with as well. First, I think you have to work through your own thoughts on Judaism and whether you want your children to identify as Jewish beyond the cultural elements. A bar/bat mitzvah is, at its core, a celebration of a child's coming of age in the Jewish faith and while I don't think you need to buy into "god" for it to be meaningful--I definitely didn't as a teenager!--you do need to value preserving the traditions of Judaism. It's a huge amount of work, and even the congregations with less involved ceremonies (sometimes shared between kids, less Hebrew, etc.) require you to enroll your child in Hebrew school for a minimum of a couple of years beforehand to learn all that is required. It's not something I would undertake lightly, and I would only do it if your child is on board with the idea of engaging more deeply with Judaism. The event itself need not be costly--many are, but you could mark the occasion with a more casual gathering in a park too. But joining a synagogue for several years and paying for Hebrew school is pricey. You don't mention how old your kids are--if they are middle elementary or older, I would think twice about trying something like this. But if they are younger, I would explore some of the local introductory programs at the reform and Reconstructionist temples in the area. Temple Sinai in Oakland and Beth El in Berkeley both have a "family school" where your whole family learns about Judaism together as a path to your children becoming bar/bat mitzvah, and Kehilla in Piedmont has a sweet kindergarten program to introduce children to Judaism. One of those might be a good fit for your family to dip your toes into the water and see if you want to go down a path that might lead to a bar/bat mitzvah. We aren't practicing and don't plan for our children to have bar/bat mitzvahs unless they independently decide to pursue it, but enrolling in programs like these was a good way to give them a basic grounding in their heritage so that they had enough information to decide for themselves. (Bonus: grandparents also loved that they did this and felt more connected!) If, after doing something like this, they do want to go down a bar/bat mitzvah path, you could absolutely do it in a way that focuses more on Jewish tradition/tikkun olam/etc. and less on the the religious aspect, if you choose the right temple (although at the end of the day, you're still reading the Torah). But I wouldn't do it solely to please grandparents--something there has to click beyond the family ties. If your kids are young, you might also check out PJ Library, which is a great resource for raising Jewish kids and also offers grants to help with the cost of taking the first steps to get involved in Judaism. Good luck with the decision!

Camp Tawonga runs a Bar/Bat Mitzvah program.  According to their web page, "By incorporating nature, community building, social justice, and experiential Jewish learning into our program, we ensure this important milestone is individualized and accessible for each and every child."  We recently attended a Bat Mitzvah of a girl who did the program, and the family "story" seems similar to what you describe.  It was a lovely and positive Bat Mitzvah, both for the guests and (as far as we could tell) the participants.  Their web page is:

I really respect your love and honor for your parents. Having said that, (and I am not Jewish), my understanding of the ceremony is that it is a religious 'initiation' wherein the child makes a decision for themselves (as an 'adult') to become part of the religion and follow and respect the commandments/tenets of said religion, not unlike confirmation for Catholics. So that begs the question, is basically making your child 'fake it' through a sacred ceremony worth it to please your parents? This is not a judgement of you, just a question.  I would also consider what that ceremony means to those who do identify with their Jewish religion. Finally, I wonder if you would even be able to find a rabbi who would be willing to approve it knowing that it is just for show. However it ends up, you are a kind person for wanting to honor your parents.

Our daughters were both bat mitzvah'd recently (they're now 14 & 16), and both by Sacha Kopin, who we LOVE! We're not affiliated with a synagogue (i'm Jewish, my husband Catholic but neither of us practicing.) Starting around age 11, Sacha came to our home once a week and tutored the girls. They learned Hebrew, Jewish traditions, how to read from the torah, etc. She was amazing with both of them, and my husband and I both felt they learned a tremendous amount and became even better, more thoughtful people through the process. While it was a commitment, it was completely doable and not tons of practicing, etc. Sacha really tailors it to what each individual child is capable of.

All of that said, we did not do this because my parents would be proud or somehow pushed for it (I wasn't bat mitzvah'd) but we gave our daughters the choice to become a bat mitzvah or not. Feel free to contact me.

I applaud you for trying to keep your family traditions alive. I am a firm atheist who throws a Hannukah party every year because, to me, it's part of my family culture and history. I don't know the real answers to your questions but I just wanted to show support for what you're trying to do. These things are important rites of passage.

I think that grandparents aside there are real merits to the ritual of B'nai Mitzvah. But the child becoming adult has to be on board. There are 'free-lance' rabbis who will do tutoring with your child. The crux is going to the bima and reciting torah, so there will be some Hebrew letter recognition and memorization for the blessings and the portion. Haftorah may or may not be optional. The speech/parsha can be the most meaningful part, and most congregations incorporate community service which is also an important part of the process. Preteens have so few public rituals acknowledging their maturing and burgeoning responsibilities that the social/peer rituals have replaced them.  The teens I have seen go through it find self actualization and competence through the process. It is months and months of effort. I have seen the young person's responsibility and contribution altered/lightened for reasons like anxiety and learning disabilities. These young folks still worked tremendously hard.  The commitment to Judaism part...well, the children are via the b'neih mitzah joining an adult community of Jews. It might be worth exploring reform/reconstruction area synagogues to see if Jewish community life appeals before venturing down the road. Judaism is a religion of action--doing good for some/many Jews matters more than belief, but one action is selecting the ritual observations that one will observe and and then acting on observing them. Holidays? Shabbat candle lighting? Ha motzi?Tzedakah? Families shape their own, often with extended family or family of choice, or friends within congregations, or via congregational gatherings.

We went both routes with our two kids-one organized and traditionally based and the other through a wonderful rite of passage program called Wilderness Torah in combination with an 'indie B'nei Mitzvah'. As a family, we preferred the Wilderness Torah experience as it let us learn about earth-based Judaism and for our kiddo, it has led to a deep and clear nature based identity as a person in the young adult Jewish community. I would strongly encourage you to check out There are several local folks who perform independent bar and bat mitzvahs as well.

You might want to check out TriValley Secular Jews. It is a Jewish cultural, non religious group that meets primarily in Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore. It doesn't have its own building. They do have a rabbi. The group has a school and does offer Bar and Bat Mitzvah training and ceremonies. All holidays are observed from a cultural view point. Just do a google search and you should be able to find more information. Hope this helps.

Please talk with Arik Labowitz (  He is such an amazing bar mitzvah tutor for "unaffiliated" families (ie. not belonging to a synagogue), as well a truly exceptional human being and can help you think through what feels right for your family. My son and daughter had such lovely, personal, deeply moving ceremonies with him, following a couple years of low pressure learning with him (alongside another student or two). My mom and elderly relatives came and participated at the ceremonies and while it wasn't the bar mitzvah any of them grew up with, they were still so appreciative and delighted-- and what I realized was how wonderful it was for the kids to have such a defined rite of passage, as well as meaningful family ritual to bring us all together.  My kids were really proud of themselves when it was all done and have a greater sense of connection to their heritage. And of course I was really proud of them too! It brought us all a lot of joy at the end.