In many ways, it was a traditional B’nei Mitzvah at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue; there were last minute nerves, proud family and friends and large cheers of “Sh’koyach!”
Instead of the traditional 13 year old taking to the bimah to read from the Torah for the first time, however, it was a group of ten Jewish adults. The course was run by an organisation called Babel’s Blessing and was targeted at those who did not celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah as children.
Participants in the course studied Jewish theology, rituals and practices alongside weekly Hebrew lessons in weekly online Zoom classes throughout the pandemic. The income from the course has provided free English lessons for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.
In their sermons, participants spoke movingly of their decision to celebrate their B’nei Mitzvah as an adult. Assimilation, the threat of antisemitism and family histories of the Holocaust were all common themes.
One participant, Isaac, shared his experience growing up in a secular family as the only Jewish person in his school.
“Antisemitic remarks were common. Instead of challenging such remarks, my response was to hide away from my identity. I stopped being called Isaac because it sounded Jewish, and I embraced whatever nickname my friends found for me. I even started to join in with the antisemitic jokes. I knew this was wrong, but it was easier than arguing.
At university I went from being the only Jew at my school, not knowing anyone who was Jewish other than my family, to knowing lots of Jews. But unsurprisingly, I didn’t feel like any of the Jews I met. All these new Jews seemed to know each other, they celebrated Jewish festivals, would say words in Hebrew that I didn’t understand, most lived in the same parts of North London. I went from not wanting to be Jewish to not being Jewish enough.
The Bar Mitzvah programme has not just been an education, but a celebration of all that is Jewish. Each class created a link between something important to me and Judaism: Jewish revolutionary history, Jewish feminism, the environment! It made me feel so proud to be Jewish.”
Another participant, Barbara, whose family migrated as political refugees to Canada from Poland when she was five, only discovered she was Jewish in her early teens. In her twenties she began to learn more about Judaism, celebrate Jewish festivals, bake challah and host Shabbat meals. Yet her mother retained the fear of antisemitism that prevented her from telling Barbara about the family’s Judaism for so long.
“My mother’s first words to me when I told her I needed to be outwardly Jewish- she spoke clearly but barely above a whisper- don’t tell anyone, she said- you don’t know when the Nazis will come back.”
For Barbara, publicly celebrating her Bat Mitzvah felt like a healing from the fear that she feels was the price her family paid for survival.
Trainee Rabbi Lev Taylor, a final year student at Leo Baeck College who taught the Babel’s Blessing course, commented “I am so proud of these Jewish people who have chosen to connect with their traditions, explore their spirituality and undertake this life-changing course. They shared their stories with such openness and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, Senior Rabbi at Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue, said “We were delighted to host the Babel’s Blessing adult B’nei Mitzvah at EHRS. It was very special to join the spirit of celebration among those who read Torah for the first time in a community. Our members are very proud that this was happening here and we hope it is the beginning of a great Jewish journey for all who participated.”