Non-Religious Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

Parent Q&A

  • 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.

    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.

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Parents disagree about conventional bar mitzvah vs. coming of age ceremony

July 2012

My older son is a couple years away from his bar mitzvah and we're talking about how to prepare. My husband would like our son to do what he did: learn Hebrew and have a conventional bar mitzvah. Coming from an nontraditional, agnostic family of origin (Jewish, non practicing mom), this does not make sense to me in fulfilling the idea that a bar mitzvah is a coming of age ceremony. Instead, I would like him to put his effort into a community service project where he really would be gaining leadership, maturity, and life experience. We tried Hebrew school when he was younger and the one in our area is not great and does not really help the kids/families to build a community.

My questions are 1) have others out there had some kind of ''coming of age'' ceremony that felt especially meaningful? 2) Have others had strongly differing ideas from their spouse about how to have a bar/bat mitzvah, how was it resolved? AP

Your desire for a coming of age ceremony that involves community building and an opportunity to do work that would teach and reward leadership and maturity- sounds like a Bar Mitzvah to me!! Our temple involves the 7th grade group in raising money for an organization which they vote on. They accept applications from organiziations, hear their presentations and decide where to put their money. They visit Glide memorial, an old age home, a cemetary. And each child, to the best of their ability, chooses a Mitzvah project which can be as simple as raising money to as elaborate as the child is interested in doing. You tried a temple years ago. Sounds like its time to check them out again. We've belonged to 3 since our 1st child was born 12 years ago and this one feels right. You need to find one that fits your families needs. Good Luck! Laurette

We asked our son what he wanted and went from there-- he ended up wanting a more traditional experience, reading from the torah etc. Both my husband and I lean towards being more secular jews but the whole point is that it's for him, right? The experience will be more meaningful and more of a true coming of age experience if you let him lead the way (within reason and guided by his parents of course) Good luck/mazel tov! anon

There are a few ways to have a bar Mitzvah within the confines of conventional, schools and tutoring, and sometimes there are choices within those options. You do not say if your child identifies as Jewish, clearly it is important to your husband that he at least has the opportunity to go through a major Jewish ritual. If done your way without any Jewish context then it will be solely a service project without any of the Jewish component. While this is not the only opportunity for a Bar Mitzvah it is the most common time for one. You do not say where you are but if you are in the Bay Area the area is studded with Jewish life and teachers, perhaps an inquiry to the board, the Jewish Federation that serves your area may give you different, more positive options than what you found when your child was younger. At age 11-12 your son ought to have a say in this. However it is not celebrated alone in a vacuum, it is a community celebration, who would attend his Bar Mitzvah and where? Many young adults do a service project in conjunction with their Bar Mitzvot. The resolution is to explore a better circumstance for your child's learning (perhaps the dad can do this since he is inclined to go this route but you could do this easily as well, and for you as parents to explore your route and have an ongoing lengthy thoughtful discussion with your son. I think you know the answer but you are looking on this board for acceptance of your idea, to strip Judaism from your son. You know how you've raised him, you know what your home is like, nobody can tell advise you properly without knowing more of your circumstance. The issue will resolve with more information, knowledge and discussion. Best of luck. Mitzvot lover

Coming of Age ritual (in place of bat mitzvah)

June 2011

We have decided that a traditional bat-mitzvah is not for us (or our daughter) but would like to do something to honor her at a time when her friends are ''coming of age.''

I have a vague idea of wanting to expose my kid to various forms of spirituality and wisdom, and to the lives of notable menches so that if and when she develops a curiosity of her own, she will have a frame of reference.

I am curious to know what others have done, and whether there are groups designed for kids/girls like mine. jessica

On my thirteenth birthday, instead of a Bat-Mitzvah, me, my mom, my best friend, and her mom (my mom's best friend) went down to the river and had a special ceremony for my coming of age. We mikvahed and they gave me blessings... and it was very casual and comfortable, and most of all, meaningful. I know that experience will stay with me forever and inspire my spiritual life and my Jewish identity. Hope this helps! -Jewish Mama

I've heard of the Stepping Stones project which has a structured Coming of Age process for pre-teens/ young teens:

A couple of books: ''Circle Round'' by Starhawk, Diane Baker, and Anne Hill has material about youth rites of passage. ''Deeply Into the Bone: Re-inventing Rites of Passage'' by Ronald Grimes gives some cross-cultural comparison.

Some ideas that come to mind for me: If you have a friend who is a spiritual type, grounded, and trustworthy, you could ask them to be a mentor to your daughter during this process and to help you design a coming of age ritual for your daughter. Teens often appreciate having a non-parental adult involved in the process. Your daughter herself should be part of the process too - you could ask her what she feels are the important elements of coming of age. Could she come up with a special project to do, culminating in a ritual? For example, depending on what you and she feel is important, the special project could be: learning about different religious traditions and attending some ceremonies of different religions; or interviewing family and friends about their heroes and who has inspired them; or doing research on a particular historical ''mensch'' who inspires her. Culmination could be a ritual with close family and friends in which she could share some of what she's been learning and also have a transitional ritual honoring and celebrating her change into a young woman.

Identify what will change about her relationship to you/ her place in the family. What special privileges and/or responsibilities will she have now she is being identified as a young woman? Make this really explicit and clear so that she really experiences things as being different after the ritual. Wishing you well on this journey

We just had a meeting about our Coming of Age program at Northbrae Church in Berkeley. We're a non-denominational church, where many traditions are honored and brought to the fore in our services and in our architecture. We have a tradition of looking to people we call Torchbearers, those who are leaders in religions, thought, and service to humanity. Torchbearers in our stained glass windows include Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Dorthy Day, Ghandi, Einstein, and many others.

This year, we have revived and refined our tradition of the Coming of Age program. The program lasts at least one year (there's a sort of warm up year if you start early enough), and includes monthly meetings for the kids to learn about and discuss ten values: Scriptural Literacy (Torah, New Test., Tao de Ching and others); Values Clarification; Peer Fellowship; Inter-religious Exposure; Torchbearer Concept; Inter-generational Engagement; Sensitivity to Social Concerns; Music; Experiences of Awe, Mystery, Wonder; and Leadership Opportunities.

You do not have to be a member of Northbrae to have your kids participate, but you do need to commit to the process.

There are some wonderful kids at Northbrae, and we were thrilled to see our first class of teens deepen their spirituality, integrity, and confidence through their Coming of Age year. I urge you to call Dianne, the Church Administrator, for more information. 526-3805 Carolyn West, Northbrae Storyteller

Unitarian Universalist congregations conduct a year-long program called ''Coming of Age'', in which 7-8 graders develop statements of their personal theologies and faith (or non-theologies and non-faith, as the case may be) that are shared with the congregation at the end of the program in a worship service. The program helps the participants explore their beliefs, connect with elders in the congregation, and conducts weekend retreats for community building, spiritual exploration, and personal growth.

Here are some on-line resources that might be useful in helping you design something of your own for your daughter. Good luck and Mazel Tov! UU Dad

Since a Bat Mitzvah is a pretty recent construct, there really is no such thing as a ''traditional'' one. In any case, the major objective of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is to mark a young person's entry into a religious community, with rights and obligations. So, if you and your daughter don't share that objective, it probably isn't the right template to follow.

It's wonderful that you want to mark your child's development in some way and that you aren't hung up on the party, as so many seem to be. As evidence of that, google ''faux mitzvah'' and prepare to be aghast. The truth is that a bar or bat mitzvah spends a tremendous amount of time studying, not just for that day, but for every day that will follow. They have to learn a significant number of prayers in a foreign language, and in many communities, two different musical ''systems.'' They also have to write a thoughtful piece of literary criticism (in effect) and deliver it as a public speech. Many children also choose to do a ''bar/bat mitzvah social action project'' -- raising funds or volunteering in some capacity that is meaningful to them. And quite a few also spend time with seniors (Holocaust survivors) learning about their lives and experience. All of this while doing school work, sports, music, and cleaning their rooms. It's a huge accomplishment, and there's a lot of support from the community along the way.

Since you're going it alone and not entering into a community, maybe your daughter would want to take the ''social action'' piece of what I described and do that on a larger scale. So, let's say that a bat mitzvah kid chose, in addition to everything else, to volunteer in a soup kitchen. Your daughter could do that AND work at the Food Bank AND train for a kids triathalon while lining up sponsors to donate to some charity you like for every mile she logs. What I'm saying, in effect, is that you could expend the same effort, but direct it differently. Then, if you also decide to have a party, she could give a talk about the projects she undertook and why, and what she learned about other people and herself in the process. It wouldn't be a Jewish ritual and you shouldn't call it a Bat Mitzvah (which is to a community as a fish is to water), but it could be very meaningful for her and your family. Good luck! Eric

You should contact Jewish Milestones. This is exactly what they do. Call or email them. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience helping people with all of life's rituals. Andrea