Adult bnai mitzvah seem to be mellowing

They bent furiously over the task of reading the ancient scrolls in the name of their sisters, mothers and grandmothers, and their younger much-maligned selves, all of whom had been explicitly forbidden from ever approaching, much less touching, the holy parchment.

But if it began as a ceremony borne of women's exclusion and resentment, not so now. On a recent weekend I saw proof at two Reconstructionist synagogues, the movement that created the bat mitzvah. The adult b'nai mitzvah ceremony –men are participating too — is mellowing into a real celebration of Jewish maturity.

At Kehillath Israel in the Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades, the evening in the newly built skylighted sanctuary had the aura of a conversionary experience, a lovefest to welcome "new Jews" to the adult community.

And in fact the five women and two men were indeed "new" to Jewish competence, new to their Jewish selves. These seven had spent the past year learning or refreshing Hebrew, Torah trope and Jewish tradition.

But the evening's highlight came as each adult described the big Why — why were they now, as adults, so invested in Jewish life?

Why indeed. One man learned he was Jewish late in his teens, but his identity scarcely mattered to him until he visited Israel with a busload of Baptists and spent the trip spontaneously bursting into tears.

Another man converted to Judaism a decade ago; he was becoming bar mitzvah only now because, as he said, "I'm ready to take my place in the Jewish community as an adult."

One woman had spent a career teaching Hebrew school but had been unable to read the unvoweled Torah text. Another had spent a decade grieving for a deceased infant, and wanted to announce that she was finally ready to be alive.

What I heard that night in the riveting stories of grief, discovery, rebirth and inspiration were adults finding their spiritual home. And it was a home amazingly without rancor, without bitterness. A home entered now with a metaphorical kiss on the mezuzah doorpost.

That ceremony, officiated by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, made me appreciate from a new angle the benefit of maturity within the Jewish tradition. Ours is emphatically a child-centered tradition. We emphasize teaching the children, the saying of the Four Questions, the passing on the tradition to the next generation. But adults need honor and meaning, too.

In my generation the need for honor and meaning has a particular urgency. The number of adults competent to perform public ritual has been dwindling, the result of 20 years spent in the counter-culture of Zen and spiritual experimentation. Baby-boomer Jews thought that after age 13 it was all over; for a long time, they stayed away. However, today, as the boomers age, that decline may be reversing.

According to the latest Reform Judaism magazine, the desire for intensive adult education is so strong, synagogues are pressed to design adult education programs intense in Torah and Talmud study. In liberal synagogues around the country, the number of men and women capable of reading Torah is if not at an all-time high, at least growing.

The popularity of the adult b'nai mitzvah ceremony signifies that adult Jews want to honor their recommitment. They're seeking a ceremony that reflects the wisdom of a Jew at midlife.

As it happens the matter of Jewish midlife was the central focus Saturday morning at the bat mitzvah of Emily Lodmer at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue. Emily and her husband, Sheldon, started MJC&S 18 years ago as a place to educate their two young children.

Not by accident the weekly Torah portion she chanted was Behar, whose theme is the jubilee year, or age 50. Emily explicitly set out to celebrate herself as a Jewish woman, using the ritual to explore the fuller range of wisdom that was now hers.

Her bat mitzvah album includes letters, cards and photos of friends celebrating Shabbat, giving charity, lighting candles, finding a teacher. Great wisdom here. Pass it on.