Swimming In the Ocean: An Adult Bat Mitzvah’s Journey

Swimming In the Ocean: An Adult Bat Mitzvah’s Journey

Last weekend, I successfully checked off an item on my “bucket list:” to learn Hebrew and become a Bat Mitzvah.  As a part of the service, the Bat Mitzvah is asked to (a) read the Torah and (b) interpret or “teach” what this particular portion of the Torah means to her.  I’ll be honest, I am more of an “off-of-the-cuff” speaker so, in cases when I have no clue how to do something, I turn to the internet for support and googled “Adult Bar Mitzvah speeches.”

There are quite a few sites offering the opportunity to pay someone to write the speech for me.  I didn’t want a professional writer to do the work for me.  Instead, I needed a proverbial “kick in the pants” to get the creative writing juices flowing.   I found some excerpts from a number of people who apparently faced (and survived) the same dilemma in the past.  I was so grateful to these souls for posting their speeches that I swore, once the Bat Mitzvah chaos had passed, that I, too, would post my words and”Pay-It-Forward”: I hope that my words inspire someone else with his/her speech. Good Luck. 

Swimming In The Ocean

Wow!  Standing with you this morning, I find that I am humbled by the generosity and love of the many people who helped and supported me along my journey to become a Bat Mitzvah.  It has taken me twenty-seven years to achieve this milestone and I would like to offer a brief commentary on my adventures getting to the Bima.

My journey to learn Hebrew and become a Bat Mitzvah is a lot like taking my first steps in the ocean on a warm summer day: filled with some trepidation (will the water be too cold?) (Am I crazy to learn Hebrew as an adult?)  As well as a desire to retreat to my warm towel (or the life I knew before I decided to take these first steps) but somehow having faith that there is something fantastic waiting for me past the breaker points—perhaps I can become part of something significant and important.

Although both of my biological parents were raised in Jewish households, our faith was not necessarily its foundation.  By the time I was five years old, my parents were divorced and my stepfather and mother agreed that participating in family centric activities (like sailing) was the key to our family’s well being.  And like the majority of the people I knew growing up, we celebrated the secular traditions of Christmas and Easter.

To borrow a famous line from author A.J. Jacobs, you could say that, growing up “I was Jewish the way Olive Garden is Italian. That is to say – not so much.”  Yes, I did attend Jewish camps, went to some Jewish heritage classes, took classes at the JCC and learned a very little Hebrew.  But I was just never all that taken by the idea of practicing any organized religion. I loved learning about them, but was not too committed in the practice.  There were cultural aspects of Judaism that were attractive, but they often came with High Holiday Services and Shabbat dinners. For whatever reason, none of that was for me.

So why the sudden change in attitude?  Why invest so much time studying something that, at one point in my life, I was quite apathetic?   My immediate answer always centers on the same two words: Family and Leadership. When our daughter, K, was born, I suddenly felt as if I was part of something bigger than myself and had a moral responsibility to help to shape my child’s spiritual growth.  I wanted K to have memories and family traditions.  Many of these are routed in the practice of an organized religion.  For K to become a fully realized person, it was important that she be exposed to her history including her faith.  As her mother and her primary female role model, I needed to share the importance of these learning’s.  But I did not feel capable of giving her this gift because I had not learned about it myself.  Suddenly learning about Judaism and Hebrew had greater significance in my life.

So I stepped gently into the cold water and started the journey. At first, I fought myself and doubted my “stay-with-it-ness.”  After all, no one was putting me up to taking Hebrew.  If I didn’t go to class, there would be no repercussions.  But images of my great-grandparents and grandparents kept flashing through my mind as if they were telling me that my embracing my faith was important—to my spiritual and personal growth.  They lead the way for our family’s successes; it was now time for me to pay it forward.

Elie Wiesel once said, “There is a divine beauty in learning…to learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth.  Others have been here before me and I walk in their footsteps.  The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples.  I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests.  And so are you.”

Mr. Wiesel’s words have always resonated with me.  My portion of the Torah focuses on the Levites and their duty to serve, maintain and protect the Ark of the Covenant.  Significant responsibilities.  Unlike the tribes of Israel, God did not award this group of people land nor were they asked to participate in the military.  The Levites were not included in the census; they were not counted.  Yet for their services and sacrifices, the Levites were seen as great leaders, pillars of the community and great teachers. It was their responsibility to maintain and enforce God’s rules and recall those that came before them. The Levites were commanded to look beyond themselves and see the importance of the greater community.  As a mother, I also feel this great sense of responsibility to serve and protect what is holiest. My ark?  My child and a commitment to the continuation of the Jewish faith in spite of those forces that threaten its extinction.

Looking back, I don’t think my 13-year-old self could have understood and appreciated the significance of these commandments.  As a more mature Bat Mitzvah, I have the benefit of life experiences and perhaps a more sophisticated understanding of the world and my role in it.  In any case, I have definitely gained a greater level of spiritual and self-awareness than I would have as a teenager.

Today, I have achieved a life goal.  Ad, I and, particularly, K, were dogmatic in their support. K has been my greatest cheerleader.  Almost daily she reminds me how proud she is that I did not give up on my dream when I struggled to master a particular prayer or Hebrew word.  Both Ad and my mother-in-law have never questioned my conviction and doggedness to learn Hebrew and become a Bat Mitzvah despite my frequent outbursts of doubt and frustration.  Finally, I am indebted to my Hebrew Instructor who has literally held my hand over the past few months encouraging me and helping me develop confidence in my leadership skills and style.

For almost two years, at least once a week, I have come to the synagogue to study Hebrew and prepare for this day.  Recently K and I attended a service in the Chapel.  As we read the Siddur, I realized that I was reading the Hebrew and not the transliteration.  Sure, I was going slowly and stumbled on the pronunciation of some of the words.  But I was reading and I was leading.

For the first time in my Jewish faith, I felt like I was swimming in the ocean of faith.