When I was in sixth grade, the talk of my bat mitzvah began to bubble up in conversations with my family. A bat mitzvah (also called a “bar mitzvah” for guys) is a Jewish coming of age ceremony that somewhat resembles confirmation. The bar or bat mitzvah is called to lead a service and, after the service, is officially recognized as a member of the Jewish community.
At some point, my mom sat me down and said, “Do you really want to have a bat mitzvah? Because if the only reason you want one is because everyone else in your grade is having one, and you want a party, we really shouldn’t go through with it.”
The truth was, I did want to have one like everyone else in my predominantly Jewish grade. And I did want a party. But that’s not why I had my bat mitzvah. I was bat mitzvahed because I wanted to become a part of the Jewish community, even though I don’t believe in every tenet of Judaism. I was bat mitzvahed because even though I’m not religiously Jewish, I believe being Jewish is more than just a religion: It’s a culture.
Like any religious group, there’s a strong sense of community within the Jewish faith, especially since Jews are a minority in the United States. This community has become especially strong from the hardship the Jewish population has endured since ancient times like slavery in Egypt, the Russian pogroms, the Holocaust. Jews have been persecuted consistently by different groups since ancient times, which fosters not only an unbreakable community, but a sense of duty to social justice. The expression “Tikkun Olam” (Hebrew for “repairing the world”) is a huge focus of every synagogue in the world. Jewish non-profits such as JFREJ, AVODAH, AJWS, and so many others incorporate Jewish themes into their work for social justice.
But when someone asks me what it means to be Jewish, my automatic response is “Food and family”. My favorite foods are traditional Jewish foods that have been passed through my family for generations: kugel, latkes, matzah ball soup...They all make my mouth water. As for family--Most Jewish families live near each other. My mom’s side of the family is Episcopal, and my first cousins on her side alone live in three different states. But my father’s extended family, up to my fifth cousins, is all concentrated in Baltimore or Chicago. We see each other often, especially on the numerous Jewish holidays. Many Jewish holidays are joyful occasions that celebrate when Jews overcame hardship (such as Channukah and Passover), and are celebrated in my family by doing what we do best: eating a lot and talking with each other for hours.
Really, it’s the best way to celebrate anything.