What Is a Bat Mitzvah?
A common misconception is that a Bat Mitzvah is an event. That it’s something you do, like a ceremony in the synagogue or a big party with dancing and a DJ. Or maybe it’s a huge, opulent show with the Bat Mitzvah girl or the Bar Mitzvah boy as the star, like this:
But a Bat Mitzvah is not something you do. It’s actually something you become. When a Jewish girl turns 12, she becomes a ‘Bat Mitzvah,’ literally meaning a ‘daughter of the commandments.’ Before this age, her Judaism was considered her parents’ responsibility. From now on, she is responsible for her own Judaism. She will decide for herself how to connect with her religion and her people. A Bat Mitzvah should represent the beginning of a Jewishly meaningful adult life, a young woman taking up the mantle of Jewish womanhood from her mother and carrying it on to the next generation.
How to Celebrate a Bat Mitzvah
A girl becomes a Bat Mitzvah automatically when she turns twelve, so you don’t actually have to do anything. But since this is the age when the commandments traditionally become incumbent on a young Jewish person (12 for girls, 13 for boys), traditions developed to publicly acknowledge the young person joining the adult Jewish community.
My grandfather’s Bar Mitzvah story is my favorite. It was a weekday morning with a Torah reading, which happens every Monday and Thursday. His father took him to the synagogue for morning prayers (shacharit) where he was called up to make the blessing for part of the reading. After prayers the guys all gathered around, said ‘mazel tov,’ and had a shot of whiskey in his honor. Then they went to work and he went to school.
In modern times it has become customary to give public recognition to young Jewish women when they become Bat Mitzvah. Depending on what stream of Judaism one practices, this could include reading from the Torah, a speech, or something outside the synagogue entirely. Often the Bat Mitzvah girl will study the Torah portion for that week and give a speech on the subject to the congregation, or if not at the synagogue then at a celebratory meal. This emphasizes the importance of engaging with traditional texts in Judaism.
In any case, the ceremony does not make the Bat Mitzvah. You become a Bat Mitzvah as a function of passing time. The reason we focus on this point in a young person’s life is because it is the time they become responsible for their Judaism. So the best way to celebrate is to focus on how that particular young woman connects to Judaism, and to strengthen that connection. If she loves animals, you may want to do some fundraising for an animal shelter. If she loves to sing, consider learning traditional Jewish songs and melodies. If she loves reading and learning then classes in classical Jewish texts might speak to her and enrich her world. Judaism is a civilization that has included all sorts of people with all sorts of interests over thousands of years. This long history has created a rich tapestry and now is the time to find your thread and to take ownership over it.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t celebrate the occasion with a party or religious ceremony at your synagogue. We are suggesting additional ways to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah.
Travel to Israel
A trip to Israel can be a perfect way to start your journey into Jewish adulthood. Exploring the ancient homeland of the Jewish people, the only Jewish country, a place where Jewish holidays are national holidays and the cab drivers are Jewish, can form a powerful connection between the Bat Mitzvah and the Jewish people. It’s also a great chance for families to spend time together and to find a way to Jewishly express the Bat Mitzvah’s personality. In the Jewish state, whatever you do has Jewish significance. That is a lesson that a young woman can take with her into the rest of her life, wherever she lives.
At InSite Israel we do things a little differently. We set up skype sessions for our Bat Mitzvah girls with learned Jewish women to learn and talk about Judaism together before the trip. They develop a personal relationship and figure out how to make the trip speak to her. That may mean visiting a dance company in Tel Aviv, volunteering at a soup kitchen in Jerusalem, making a video documentary of her trip, learning about the week’s Torah portion and preparing a speech or reading, or something totally different. The trip is designed, not around a standard tour of the country, but around the Bat Mitzvah girl herself and her family. The goal is to inspire her to live life infused with Jewish values, love of the Jewish people and of Judaism, and a strong lifelong connection to her family and heritage.
What’s Really Important?
In the end a Bat Mitzvah celebration is a one time event that you want to remember forever, the beginning of a lifelong path. What do you want that path to look like? Taking some time to think about what really matters to you, what Judaism and becoming a Bat Mitzvah mean to you, has to be the starting point for planning a Bat Mitzvah. From there, everything else will become clear.
If you have any questions about a Bat Mitzvah, planning a Bat Mitzvah, the meaning of a Bat Mitzvah, a Bat Mitzvah trip to Israel, a volunteering project, or anything else, please feel free to write to us.