Adult bar mitzvahs fill yearning for spirituality

Matthew Grad, shown with his daughter Ariela.

BY ADAM RUSH, JUNIOR, LADUE HORTON WATKINS HIGH SCHOOL

From the outside, a bar or bat mitzvah can seem routine. Teenagers study for a few years, have a ceremony when they are either 12 or 13 years old and then have a party. However, the path often is more complex for those who are not able to go through the typical process. Jewish adults who were not able to have a bar mitzvah at a young age occasionally have one later in life to fulfill something they felt was missing.

Matthew Grad, a Jewish adult, who belongs to Congregation B’nai Amoona, had his bar mitzvah in December 2014. As a boy, having a bar mitzvah was never an option, so as an adult he wanted the opportunity to experience a bar mitzvah and all the knowledge that came with it. 

“I view the bar mitzvah as an intense crash course in giving myself skills that I found I now need in life,” Grad said. “I had reached a point where I wanted those skills, [and] a bar mitzvah was a mechanism to get them.” 

Although Grad had a background in Hebrew while he was studying for his ceremony, he still dealt with challenges learning the necessary material. Cantor Seth Warner of Congregation Shaare Emeth said this is not uncommon for those who go through the bar mitzvah process as an adult.  

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“Even the most studious and open adult needs to reopen some of the learning pathways that are naturally open to teens,” Warner said. “For adults, learning something new can be daunting. … It’s sometimes harder to learn new things as an adult, but when [they] take the risk of learning something new, it’s fulfilling. No matter the challenges, it is often apparent to me that when Torah is being learned, there is holiness in the struggle.”

Beyond his initial motivations, Grad also chose to pursue a bar mitzvah because he wanted to have one before his children. He didn’t want them to do something he wouldn’t go through himself. His daughter Ariela, 13, had her bat mitzvah in December, and he wanted to assist her in any way he could. Because her father had gone through a similar experience a few years earlier, Ariela felt comfortable asking for his help when it came time to study for her bat mitzvah. 

“[My father] was always pushing me to work harder,” Ariela said. “He would say, ‘[I know] how good it will feel when it’s all done.’ I felt like I could turn to my dad and that he would help me.”

When Grad had his ceremony in 2014, Ariela thought it was strange that her father was participating in an event that was meant for teenagers. However, at the same time she found it impressive that he was able to have a bar mitzvah at that point in his life, and she began to look forward to hers. 

“I always look up to my dad when he does something cool,” Ariela said. “[It inspired me] to want to have a bat mitzvah.”

For Grad, there was more than just a practical motive for having a bar mitzvah in his later years. Along with wanting the skills that came with having a bar mitzvah, he also wanted a stronger connection to the spiritual side of Judaism. 

“I wanted to understand the  [Jewish religion] at a deep level,” Grad said. “Now what I find spiritually is that really knowing what davening means, what the words are connected to, makes it much more meaningful and valuable to me. [It] really helped me get more out of davening than I ever had before.”

Warner said Shaare Emeth generally has two to 12 adult b’nai mitzvahs a year. Warner said he encourages anyone thinking about a bar or bat mitzvah to get in touch with their rabbi. 

“All students are invited to learn Hebrew and participate in leading a service,” Warner said. “There are no age requirements for adult students to study toward bar or bat mitzvahs. This year, we’ve had students as young as 18 and as old as 83. … No one is turned away from studying and learning.”