13 Going on 33: Why I Decided to Have an Adult Bat Mitzvah

by Emily Wiggins / July 3, 2024

Emily Wiggins explores why she studied for an adult bat mitzvah, security in her Jewish identity, “showtime” on the day of the ceremony, and what comes after you’ve completed a major milestone.

Emily (right) and her family.

You are standing in front of the congregation, nervous, in your new dress and shoes. Your mom is watching proudly from the audience. You move the yad to the first word in the Torah scroll and you start reading your parsha. Your voice cracks a little on some of the cantillation, but you finish without any prompting from the gabbai. The rabbi beams at you as you wrap up your section.

You are not 13. You are 32 years old. 

These are the scenes from my adult bat mitzvah (or adult b’nai Torah, as it’s technically called). I, along with 12 other adults, came to the Torah at the end of May 2024 after two years of studying at Temple Micah, in what was both an intellectually challenging and identity-affirming experience.

Growing up, I wasn’t raised fully immersed in Jewish culture or religion, only knowledge of my mom’s Jewish heritage. I felt like I was missing out on something; I was constantly hungry for knowledge on Judaism, Jewish family history, and Jewish food culture. I hadn’t had a bat mitzvah as a preteen, so I couldn’t read Hebrew and had never opened a Torah scroll, and felt slightly robbed of the rite of passage. 

Emily and her boyfriend at the post-ceremony kiddush.

Emily and her boyfriend at the post-ceremony kiddush.

In 2021, I moved from North Carolina, where I spent the better part of my then 29 years, to the DC metro area. One large motivation behind the move was my need for a more diverse Jewish community. I wanted more Jewish life that catered to those in their 20s and 30s. I wanted to focus on aspects of Jewish life beyond holiday celebrations. Luckily, I found that in the DC community. After some time spent familiarizing myself with the landscape of Jewish life, I settled on my next step: having an adult bat mitzvah service. 

After questioning how to even have an adult bat mitzvah, the answer came from Rabbi Nora at Sixth & I, who advised that Temple Micah would soon be starting an adult b’nai Torah cohort. She contacted the Temple Micah rabbi on my behalf and, mere days after meeting with Rabbi Nora, I was sitting in class surrounded by new people on nearly identical journeys. As we all introduced ourselves, I felt relieved that so many others shared my desire to close the circle on their identity and religious practice. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only Jewish person in the DC area who had never been b’nai mitzvahed and felt like something was missing.

We began meeting every other Tuesday, first reinforcing our basic knowledge on Jewish prayer and life, and then slowly tackling the Hebrew. Fortunately, I was used to learning languages with alphabets that differ from English, but adding the vowels made things extra challenging. After practicing reading texts in Hebrew, it was then time to add the cantillation, which are the marks under letters that indicate how the Torah should be chanted. I watched so many YouTube videos intended for children in Sunday school, and still could not perfect my method. With practice, all of the pieces started coming together. I memorized the cantillation and could even read my verses of the parsha without the vowels, exactly as they appear in the Torah.

Kiddush cake with a class photo.

Kiddush cake with a class photo.

After much anticipation and preparation, the day of the ceremony was upon us. The whole class was giddy with excitement and everyone spent the minutes before the ceremony hugging their families and offering words of encouragement to the class. Our rabbi gave a speech that moved nearly the entire room to tears expressing how inspired she was that all of us had taken this journey in adulthood. 

We took our places at the front of the sanctuary, and then it was showtime. We were each called up to read by our Hebrew names, and as I listened to my peers read their Torah portions before me, I was inspired by the level of calm that had settled over the group, even though I was still shaking with anxiety, terrified of reading the portion incorrectly or forgetting the cantillation. This journey was about identity for me. What if I messed up? Would I be affirming my deepest fears about myself? 

I imagined the crowd sneering: “She screwed up the Hebrew, she’s not Jewish enough.” Waiting for my name to be called, I tried to calm myself with our Rabbi’s earlier speech. She had asked: “When was the last time you thought about someone making a mistake during services? Never, right?” 

When it was my turn, I stood up to take my place on the bimah. I thought about my mom and the many times she had affirmed my decision to take this journey, reminding me that this was about me and my spiritual practice and that I didn’t need to care what other people thought. I thought about my cousin, who had traveled all the way from Germany to see me specifically for this event. I thought about my boyfriend, whose family was also sitting in the audience. His family continuously expressed how proud they were of me, and I’d practiced my parsha with my boyfriend to perfection. Nothing could hurt me now. I was armed with the wisdom from people I loved. I picked up the yad and I began.

Emily at the Torah.

Emily at the Torah.

After 90 seconds, it was over. I chanted confidently and without error. I sat back down. Running on nothing but adrenaline, I sang through the rest of the service with enthusiasm and Jewish joy. The big moment I’d been practicing for was complete, and I had accomplished a Jewish tradition I had yearned to be part of for so long. All there was left to do was celebrate.

I saw the b’nai Torah experience as the pinnacle of my Jewish practice, the sole event that would turn my Jewish imposter syndrome around. It had been my raison d’etre for the last two years. I was dreading the end of the b’nai Torah process because it inevitably left me with a sense of needing to accomplish something else. What “Jewish thing” would I do next? 

I soon realized the journey is not about checking boxes. Our parsha, which was on the jubilee year and the shmita (a practice of letting the land rest every seventh year), taught the importance of rest and rejuvenation. Why couldn’t I also allow myself to rest and rejuvenate? 

There are so many ways to be involved in Jewish life in the DC area, and living in the nation’s capital almost naturally propels you into a busy, mission-driven mindset. For now, I’m going to continue contemplating how to live a Jewish life in line with the values reaffirmed to me during the b’nai Torah process. I also want to continue studying Hebrew so as to not lose what I worked so arduously on for two years. I know the “next big thing” in my Jewish life will come to me so, for now, I will take the advice of the shmita and rest.

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