Gina Barr thought she knew almost everything there was to know about Judaism. Then she decided to have a bat mitzvah.
“Boy,” Barr says of the two-year process leading up to the ceremony, “Let me tell you, it’s an eye-opener.”
Barr is one of a relatively small number of Jewish adults choosing to undergo b’nai mitzvah studies later in life. At many Baltimore-area synagogues, classes of anywhere from one to 20 or more people complete the milestone every year.
For Barr, 53, who converted to Judaism from Roman Catholicism three decades prior, the decision to have a bat mitzvah at the age of 48 was easy. In many ways, it was almost a logical progression.
“I just wanted to keep discovering what this religion is about,” she says.
A self-described “Jew by choice,” Barr spent years immersing herself in her new religion. She kept kosher and attended services in every new town she and her military family moved to, but still she wanted more.
“Jews by choice have this ferocious appetite,” Barr says, and completing the bat mitzvah process was her solution.
In some ways, Barr envies her Jewish friends, with their long family histories full of Jewish tradition.
“We [Jews by choice] don’t typically have that history behind us,” she says. “We really have to build it for ourselves.”
The reasons behind the decision to have an adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremony are plenty, says Cantor Ann Sacks of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (BHC,) head of the adult b’nai mitzvah program at the synagogue. Some participants are women who were unable to have bat mitzvah ceremonies at their childhood synagogues, others converted as adults and still more underwent the process at the age of 13 but choose to repeat it to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the ritual.
“We try to have ongoing support for adults who never received solid Hebrew educations when they were kids,” says Cantor Sacks.
The process for adult b’nai mitzvah candidates differs in some ways from that of their teenage counterparts. For one thing, adults at BHC attend two years of classes before their ceremonies. Classes are held on Sundays and are held collectively, creating a strong group dynamic.
“We were like a family,” says Barr of her class. “We all helped each other.”
Barr recalls her group learned to adjust to each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, even helping to accommodate a tone-deaf student who struggled with chanting.
The first year of the b’nai mitzvah preparation program focuses on the Hebrew language. Hebrew ability varies from person to person at first, explains Sacks, who teaches Sunday Hebrew classes. The classes aim to get group members on the same plane so they can better understand the prayers. Some candidates come in with a solid knowledge of Hebrew, so they can opt to take another class offered by the synagogue, but most people beginning the process prefer to brush up on their Hebrew, says Cantor Sacks.
While Sacks teaches the first year by herself, students work with BHC’s other cantor and the congregation’s two rabbis in the second year of learning before finally being called to the Torah.
The process is undoubtedly time consuming, but between taking her son to Hebrew school classes, raising her family and maintaining her own career, Barr managed to fit it in.
“I picked the time,” she says. “I could have done it earlier. I could have done it later. I said, ‘This is the time.’ I saw a window of opportunity.”
When the day came for Barr and her peers to lead the congregation, the temple was packed with friends, family and other supporters.
“It just really gave you chills,” she remembers.
The experience allowed Barr to reflect and gain a deeper understanding of the prayers she had been reciting for decades, but she was surprised to find she was able to keep a lot of her emotion at bay.
“You think you’re going to be crying and bawling,” Barr says. “But it was just so delightful.”
Now a veteran of the b’nai mitzvah process, Barr, who prior to her own bat mitzvah had observed her daughter and eldest son as they prepared for their simchas, watched her youngest son go through the process earlier this year from a whole new vantage point. This time, she did so with the full knowledge of an insider. Having experienced everything just a few years prior, she was relaxed.
In addition to the understanding she gained through the process, Barr says she has found the value of her adult bat mitzvah transfers into her life outside of a formal religious setting.
“I even have it on my resume,” she says. “It’s listed under my personal endeavors section because I thought it was such an accomplishment.
Heather Norris is a JT staff reporter — firstname.lastname@example.org