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My Bat Mitzvah Weekend in Jerusalem

My Bat Mitzvah Weekend in Jerusalem

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© Boruch Hoffinger
© Boruch Hoffinger

When I was younger, I thought that being a bat mitzvah meant having a party. I later learned that the bat mitzvah ceremony is a relatively modern phenomenon. A girl automatically turns bat mitzvah on her twelfth birthday, taking on a very important component of adulthood: responsibility.

When a Jewish girl comes of age, she becomes responsible for keeping the commandments. The words “bat mitzvah” literally mean “daughter of the commandments.”

I don’t know why I didn’t have a bat mitzvah celebration when I turned 12, but I’d always wanted one.

And now, as a young adult, I could finally experience this milestone—in Israel.

I could finally experience this milestone—in Israel

I was touring Israel with a group of young professionals in their twenties and thirties. We were from all over the United States, and we were a mix of Jews from different backgrounds. But we were united in our mission. We were here to see Israel.

I didn’t expect to have a bat mitzvah while on this trip. However, it turned out to be one of the most meaningful experiences for me and for many of the other participants.

It all started when the rabbi who was leading the group said that anyone who hadn’t had a bar or bat mitzvah celebration and would like one should speak to him. I was embarrassed, thinking I’d be the only one. But then one of the other women on the trip told me, with a big smile on her face, that she was going to sign up.

“I’ve never had a bat mitzvah celebration before either,” I said.

Although I knew that I had already become a bat mitzvah automatically at age 12, marking this milestone was important to me. It was a way to remind myself of who I am and how much I’ve grown. There is something to be said for standing in front of a crowd and publicly accepting our responsibilities.

We walked arm in arm over to the rabbi. Surprisingly, a handful of other people came forward as well.

The celebration was planned for motzoei Shabbat. That Friday, we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and Mount Herzl, the military cemetery where ministers are buried alongside soldiers. Then we made our way to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for Shabbat. On the way, we walked down to the Cardo, where the arches of the ancient Roman street still stand underneath the main pedestrian walkway. As the rabbi led the group in song, voices suddenly joined in from above us.

At the top of the stairs looking down at us was a group of religious men in black coats and black hats, arms around each other, singing with us, to us. It was a moment beyond words, and I was filled with a heartwarming sense of complete solidarity.

We made our way to the Kotel as Shabbat descended upon us. There were so many people there. I walked up to the Wall and waited for a space to clear up right next to it. When it was my turn, I put my hands up against the stones. They were hard and warm. I closed my eyes and said a prayer.

After I was done, I looked for a crevice between the stones where I could stick my pre-written note. When I found one, I asked G‑d to answer my prayers, kissed my hand and placed it on the stone, and then stepped backwards away from the Wall. I felt completely at peace.

I was standing with two of my friends at some distance from the Wall when we saw the dancing. We joined in and followed the movements of the other women, putting our arms around each other, dancing in a circle and swaying back and forth. The friend on my left began crying, overwhelmed by the experience. A few moments later, I saw a tear roll down the cheek of the friend on my right.

I looked for a crevice between the stones

“Are you okay?” I asked one of them.

“I’m just so happy,” she said.

I smiled, and we all hugged.

In this moment, there was the power of unity and continuity, a co-mingling of the past, present, and future. Something about who we were and who we are and where we belong: to these people, to this community, to this time, to this place.

Towards the end of Shabbat, those of us who would be participating in the bar and bat mitzvah celebration stood on the patio of our hotel and told our stories.

Jews from the former Soviet Union, who had been unable to celebrate in their home country when they were bar or bat mitzvah, were proud to be able to celebrate in freedom now.

One woman said that when she turned 12, she was given the choice whether to have a bat mitzvah or not, because her family was tight on money. She had decided against it and later regretted her decision.

Another girl told the story of how her father had paid for her to come on this trip. He had unexpectedly passed away before she left.

“He would have been so proud of me today,” she said.

It was moments like this on the trip, when we shared our stories and experiences together, that made me feel united with something transcendent, that made me feel that my trip to Israel was worthwhile, that I had, unknowingly, come here for just this experience.


Up and down, up and down.

A calm Jerusalem wind blew through my hair as I was bounced on a chair held up by four people.

It was the first time I’d ever done this, and my heart raced, excited and nervous.

As I floated up and down, white stones seemed to drift beneath my feet. A violinist was playing traditional Jewish music in the background, but I was so engrossed in the moment that the sound faded into the distance. I watched the people dance in a circle around me. They looked so small from my perch high in the air.

Mazel tov!” I heard them say.

The festivities were still going strong

Another bat mitzvah bounced on a chair beside me. We were the last ones of the bat mitzvah celebrations’ participants to be on the chairs, but the festivities were still going strong around us.

Suddenly, a voice spoke from somewhere below me.

“Let go,” it said.

My fingers were clenched around the arms of the white wicker chair. I lifted one finger at a time, testing the waters.

“Put your hands in the air!” the voice shouted.

I leaned back into the chair, straightened my fingers, and extended my arms into the clear night sky, my legs dangling beneath me, graceful and agile, like a ballerina. This was the ride of my life, a celebration bigger than me. It was time to surrender to the awe of the moment.

Samantha Barnett is a writer. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
Artwork by Boruch Hoffinger.
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Cindy North Wales, PA December 4, 2014

Belated Bat Mitzvah story Thank you for your important prose. I felt your excitement in this wonderful moment of your life. You're a wonderful writer! I became a Bat Mitzvah (with my twin sister) when we were thirteen years old. It was a precious experience. Now in my fifth decade I am wise enough to know that it's not so easy to behave responsibly and to set a good example, which is what being a Bat Mitzvah is all about. Our synagogue held a Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremony for a number of congregants of advanced age. There is great merit to this ritual, I've discovered. Reply

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