No one knows exactly when Jews began to publicly commemorate a Jewish child’s transition into adulthood. In fact, the terms bar-mitzvah (for a boy) and bat-mitzvah for a girl originally described the status of the child who is now required to observe the commandments incumbent upon adult Jews. It was not the name of a ceremony to celebrate that. Most scholars believe that some time in the Middle Ages, boys commemorated their new status by demonstrating competence in synagogue rituals. They would recite blessings and chant portions from the bible as an indication of their right and responsibility to do so. It took hundreds of years before anyone thought about providing the same opportunity for girls.
Humanistic Judaism is bluntly honest about the celebration of B'nei Mitzvah. We recognize that a thirteen-year-old is still many years away from adulthood. And because we do not view Jewish heritage as a fixed set of rights and responsibilities, we prefer to celebrate the Bar or Bat Mitzvah as a transition from childhood to adolescence.
Ideally, Humanistic B'nei Mitzvah celebrations come after a child has participated in a Humanistic Jewish education for some years. This means that the ceremony, celebrated in the context of a Shabbat service, also honors the young person’s commitment to learning about her or his Jewish heritage. Rather than preparing for a display of mechanical competence in traditional rituals, our students spend a year or more researching a person of their choosing whose life demonstrates a commitment to values promoted by Humanistic Judaism. This “Humanistic hero” might be someone very famous or simply a person worthy of admiration.
Typically, our B'nei Mitzvah students also develop a relationship with a tutor who guides them through the process. They may also meet with Rabbi Falick one or more times. At the service, our young people deliver a speech that reflects the many hours of thought and work that went into their selection. Because our students spend some time during their years of education acquiring a familiarity with Hebrew, they often read a short piece of poetry or prose, modern or ancient, in conjunction with their speech. This, too, is a way to connect them to their Jewish heritage.
At the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, the ceremony can take place on a Friday night during our public service, or on a Saturday morning or afternoon with family and friends. It includes readings, selected in part by the young person and her or his family. There is also a candle-lighting ceremony and an opportunity for parents or other loved ones to express their joy. In keeping with Humanistic Judaism’s openness to families of varied heritage, there are no restrictions whatsoever placed on the participation of any friend, family member or loved one.