Secular Bat Mitzvahs? Yes, they do exist!
When I was in 7th grade, all of my Jewish friends complained about having to memorize Torah portions and prayers for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I had a Bat Mitzvah too, but mine was secular and didn't include these traditional elements. My secular ceremony was different than any other Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and that is what made it so special to me. The term “secular Bar and Bat Mitzvah” is given to a ceremony that marks the entrance of a Jewish teen into the secular Jewish community. The event is a celebration of the child’s education on Jewish values, culture, and traditions. It is the start of a journey to becoming a better person and to bettering the Jewish community.
My decision to have a secular Bat Mitzvah came about because I attended an amazing secular Jewish community school, IL Peretz. Classes every Sunday morning included Jewish history and culture, as well as some introductory Hebrew. Instead of memorizing Torah portions, we discussed lessons taught in the Torah and whether or not they were in line with our modern day progressive and egalitarian values.
One of my favorite classes was during my graduation year, the year of my Bat Mitzvah. Speakers from various branches of Judaism came and discussed their upbringing. We had everyone from a Sephardic orthodox young woman to an older man who identified as secular but was raised in a more observant family. This class was especially memorable because it was the first time in my life that I started to become more comfortable with being raised in a secular household.
Before my Bat Mitzvah, I had always felt less Jewish than my friends who were frequently at a synagogue practicing their Torah portions and praying on high holidays. It was a terrible feeling at Jewish summer camp and other Jewish events when everyone sang Sabbath blessings and I stood there awkwardly not knowing the words. So, seeing that secular Jewish man in my class call himself a proud Jew was a critical turning point for me.
After that class, I decided that the best way to feel confident about my Judaism would be to enter into the Jewish community officially by having a Bat Mitzvah ceremony. Since my parents were not observant, a religious ceremony was out of the question. At first my dad seemed against the idea and my mom was kind of indifferent, but ultimately my dad agreed to help me build the Bat Mitzvah experience I wanted. Together we decided that my speech would be about my own Jewish values as I understood them at the time, based on what I had learned at both school and camp. It would be about me and my relationship with Jewish culture and values, the epitome of what secular Judaism is all about.
My dad and I set a date and began working on the ceremony. My favorite part was writing about the important Jewish values in my life. My writing skills at age 13 may not have been the best, but my passion for the topic made up for it. The values I included were Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), Social Justice, and Tzedakah (charity). I emphasized how these values are interconnected in their goal to make the world a better place for everyone. At age 13 there wasn’t much I could do to make a huge difference in society, but reflecting on these topics at that time helped me realize that I wanted to bring about positive change in the world in the future.
Today, I see how much I have done to make Tikkun Olam, Social Justice, and Tzedakah important parts of my life. This past summer I was lucky enough to work at Hashomer Hatzair, a labor Zionist youth movement, where I ran activities to educate campers on the exact values I spoke about in my Bat Mitzvah speech. For example, I helped run a murder mystery night about the disappearing honey bees. Bees are vital to human life and are endangered. It is important to educate as many people as possible about them. Outside of Hashomer Hatzair, I work with BBYO, another Jewish youth group, to continue sharing my values with more Jewish peers. As high school students, it is so easy for us to become wrapped up in our own lives and not worry about anything else. Twice a month we have meetings where we discuss what is going on in the world around us and ways we can make a difference. We volunteer at our local temple and donate to local shelters. It is a great feeling to watch my peers grow and learn with me as we become more involved in our community.
I’m now three years older than I was when I had my secular Bat Mitzvah ceremony, and I still have the same passion for making the world a better place. I hope to continue learning about Jewish culture, religion, history, and traditions, and to find more Jewish values to call my own. I will also continue to prove to others that even though my brand of Judaism doesn’t include religious observance, I am no less Jewish.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Jodidio, Maya. "Secular Bat Mitzvahs? Yes, they do exist!." 20 October 2016. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 19, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/secular-bat-mitzvahs-yes-they-do-exist>.