Amanda Paull, 21, was raised in a Catholic home with a Catholic mother and Jewish father. In her hometown of Northbrook, Ill., north of Chicago, she attended church regularly with her mother and two siblings.
And yet in May 2016, Paull stood on a bima in a Jerusalem hotel next to four other college students. Overwhelmed with nerves and excitement, they recited in unison the blessing for an aliya to the Torah. At an informal ceremony, Paull and the others became bar and bat mitzvah.
“It was a really spiritual experience to have my bat mitzvah in Jerusalem.” Paull said. “I felt like I was a part of the religion.”
The five, and another 120 college students who witnessed the ceremony, were on a 10-day Birthright trip to Israel. Birthright did not answer a request for information about b’nai mitzvah during its tours. But those who take part, like Paull, had little or no exposure to Judaism growing up. For them, the Jewish rite of passage complemented their first trip to the Jewish homeland.
“It was probably the first time in Jewish history anyone showed up to their bar mitzvah service sunburned and a little hungover,” Stephanie Butnick wrote in Tablet about a service she attended on Birthright in 2012. “But there was no doubt that this was a special moment.
“Special mostly because many of the 12 participants in the service had very little interaction with Judaism growing up, and most hadn’t considered getting bar mitzvahed at all when they were teenagers.
This morning each of them opted to take part in a Jewish ritual that had been a requisite part of my Jewish upbringing.”
Paull said her perspective on religion came mainly from her mother, who attended Catholic school throughout her childhood, while Paull’s father was uninvolved in their religious upbringing.
Paull lived this way until she was 15, when her maternal grandmother, the main religious influence in the family, died.
“At that point, it was kind of like whatever we wanted to believe in, [my parents] would support,” she said.
While Paull was always curious about Judaism, she finally felt confident to investigate, but wasn’t sure how to begin.
Then, during her freshman year at the University of Maryland, she joined the Jewish sorority Sigma Delta Tau, and her exploration began.
“I grew up with tons of Jewish people and most of my friends in SDT are Jewish, so over time I’ve learned a lot about the religion through conversations with them,” she said.
Paull began attending events at the Hillel student center with her sorority sisters and participating in Shabbat services. She found herself yearning to explore Judaism more deeply.
At the end of Paull’s sophomore year, many of her friends began preparing for their summer Birthright trip. Paull wanted to join.
“I already felt much stronger about Judaism than I ever did about Catholicism, so I used this as a way to learn more about myself and my newly found Jewish culture,” she said.
When her trip coordinator asked their group if anyone was interested in having a bar or bat mitzvah, Paull hesitantly agreed. “I started thinking about the fact that I was confirmed Catholic when I was younger and didn’t truly understand the concept of religion, and I saw this as a way to honor my dad’s side of the family as I had already honored my mom’s.”
In the week before the ceremony, she met with her trip coordinator multiple times. She learned the Torah blessings and prepared a speech about her evolving connection to Judaism.
One of the other participants on the bima was Alix Hyatt, 21, of Baltimore, who took advantage of this opportunity for a different reason than Paull.
Hyatt grew up in a Conservative home and Judaism played a significant role in her life, she said. She
attended High Holiday services every year and celebrated her bat mitzvah the day before her 13th birthday.
But once she began attending the University of Maryland, Hyatt found herself struggling to incorporate Judaism into her life. Her full schedule kept her from attending High Holiday services.
A few months before Hyatt’s Birthright trip, her grandfather died. “It has always been his dream to have his grandchildren bar and bat mitzvahed in Israel,” she said, “so I decided to get re-bat mitzvahed to honor him and his memory.”
She added, “Being in Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world, and standing on a bima, was one of the most incredible experiences ever.”
As Hyatt and Paull stepped off the bima after the service, each experienced different emotions. Paull had a newfound appreciation and understanding for her father’s Jewish heritage. Hyatt had a familiar feeling of closeness to her family and the religion that has been part of her life for as long as she can remember.