While the typical bar and bat mitzvah party celebrates the coming of age of 13-year-old Jewish boys and 12-year-old Jewish girls, a grand celebration of an entirely different nature took place at Binghamton University in New York. The party had all the trappings of the standard teenage affair, but it was 15 fully-grown college students who celebrated their entry into Jewish adulthood.

“These are not young kids going through the motions. They are not having a bar and bat mitzvah to enjoy a party,” said Rabbi Levi Slonim, program and development director at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life in Binghamton. “These are young adults who have decided to make a passionate statement about the centrality of Jewish identity in their lives.”

With or without a ceremony to mark the turning point, Jewish women become responsible to observe the Torah at the age of 12, while Jewish men enter adulthood for ritual purposes at the age 13. Slonim, though, explained that a celebration of Jewish adulthood – especially after learning about the responsibilities that status entails, as the collegians did – has an inherent value at any age.

“By doing this publicly,” said the rabbi, “they are affirming to friends and family that Judaism is something they feel strongly about.”

More than 250 students attended the celebration, which featured a lavish meal and lively gender-separate dancing. Some 30 parents, friends and family members of the honorees traveled from across the Tri-State area of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, and from as far away as Miami.

Dan Lemonds, a self-described partier on campus, said that people were surprised when they heard of his intention to have a bar mitzvah. No less than his mother thought at first that it was a joke.

“At first, I thought it was a prank call, because Dan is a bit of a jokester. I thought he was just pulling one over on me, so I said, ‘Okay Dan, let’s get serious,’ ” said the mother. “And he said, ‘No, I really am.’ ”

For Lemonds, the reason for proclaiming his Jewish identity in such a public manner was very straightforward. He never had the opportunity as a kid.

“I decided that I wanted one once I met other Jewish kids at the school and my fraternity,” he explained. “When I went to the Chabad House about a month ago, I learned that I could still have a bar mitzvah.”

Binghamton University graduate Avi Aarons dances with Rabbi Levi Slonim during a grand bar and bat mitzvah celebration at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life. (Photo: Edward Lin/Chabad of Binghamton)
Binghamton University graduate Avi Aarons dances with Rabbi Levi Slonim during a grand bar and bat mitzvah celebration at the Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life. (Photo: Edward Lin/Chabad of Binghamton)

Filling the Void

Others described the experience as a reflection of a deep-seated spiritual pull.

“For me, this event allowed me to fill a void, and finally confirm my place in the Jewish community,” said Sari Katz, a Binghamton senior. “I’ve always lived by the motto, ‘It’s never too late.’ Though it would have been wonderful to have gone to Hebrew school and been bat mitzvahed at a young age, I’m glad I waited, because I can now appreciate the event for the right reasons.

“Most important is the acceptance of your identity and your responsibility as an adult in the Jewish community,” continued Katz. “What better place to do this than at college, where students everywhere learn to express themselves and find their niche?”

During the Dec. 7 afternoon celebration, each of the students delivered a Torah-based speech. Officials described it as a one-of-a-kind event to hold during the school year. Other campus-based Chabad Houses have hosted similar celebrations, especially when accompanying students on free Taglit-birthright israel tours of the Holy Land.

Rita Vinnik, who’s family moved to the United States from Communist Russia, said that her bat mitzvah at Binghamton was the ultimate expression of religious freedom.

“Having come from a country that didn’t allow Jewish expression,” she related, “the best way I could voice my gratefulness for [living in America] is through having a bat mitzvah, freely and openly.”

Speaking for the group, Heather Fink said in her remarks that she and her fellow students were making the ultimate statement of Jewish pride.

“We are all making a conscious decision of how important our religion is to us,” she said. “We are taking our beliefs into our own hands.”