Faith in Westport / A Humanistic approach to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs

Beth Ulman of Fairfield is a member of the Congregation of Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County, based in Westport.
Beth Ulman of Fairfield is a member of the Congregation of Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County, based in Westport.Contributed Photo

Bar and bat mitzvah are the coming-of-age rituals that signal the transformation of a Jewish boy and girl into a Jewish adult. In Humanistic Judaism -- one of the five branches of Judaism -- each bar and bat mitzvah is a unique and meaningful event.

Becoming a bar or bat mitzvah means a child is fully initiated into the Jewish religion and is responsible for his actions and for fulfilling the Jewish ideals of mitzvot (literally, "commandments," but with a modern meaning of doing good deeds); tzedakah (usually defined as charity, but in humanism, the emphasis is on raising the dignity of people so that they can help themselves); and tikkun olam (making the world a better place). These values form the core of Humanistic Judaism, along with the recognition that the responsibility for putting them into practice lies in our own hands.

The Congregation for Humanistic Judaism strives to make the Mitzvah experience meaningful for the entire family. Under the guidance of Westport resident Rochelle Green, CHJ's Mitzvah coordinator, each CHJ Mitzvah candidate completes a two-year course of investigation, research and at least 25 hours of community service. Our children become Jewish detectives, digging into family history and Jewish traditions to gain a good understanding about where they come from and where Judaism can take them. They keep a journal about what they learn and how they feel about it. At the same time, our children attend CHJ's Sunday School where they learn about Jewish history, culture, and traditions from a Humanistic perspective.

The Mitzvah program culminates in a research project on a topic of Jewish interest, which becomes the focal point of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Each project is as distinctive as the child who creates it. Mitzvah candidates are paired with a volunteer mentor from the congregation, and the two work together for months to create a special presentation that is a source of pride for the young person, his family, and the entire congregation. Recent topics have included a study of where Humanistic Judaism fits into the greater Jewish community; a video presentation about adoption and Jewish culture; and an entertaining look and listen about Jewish Americans and comedy, complete with audio clips.

A CHJ Mitzvah ceremony is a family affair. Together, the student and family create a beautiful, personally meaningful service that reflects Humanistic Jewish values. Common elements of CHJ Mitzvah services include candle lighting, Torah commentary, songs, and blessings, in addition to the Mitzvah child's presentation, but the uniqueness of each ceremony itself reflects the Humanistic Jewish value of personal responsibility.

Steven Baumann is a seventh-grader currently enrolled in CHJ's Sunday School and Mitzvah program. He plans a bar mitzvah project on comparative religion, with a presentation in video format. Video has played a role in Steven's community service as well: He has been videotaping programs of the Trumbull Arts & Nature Center, then editing them and posting them online.


606 Post Rd. East, No. 542, Westport, CT 06880

203-226-5451 /


HISTORY: Founded in 1967, the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism is a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Humanistic Judaism is one of the five branches of Judaism recognized by the United Jewish Communities. CHJ is a cooperative community run exclusively by members, who plan educational programs, social events, and holiday observances throughout the year.

NUMBER OF MEMBERS: 85 member families

ONGOING PROGRAMS: Sunday School -- play group through Bar/Bat Mitzvah; Adult Education; Book Group; Women's Rap; Men's Rap; Social Action; Friday and Saturday night programming; Teen Band; Teen Mitzvah Club

HOLIDAY OBSERVANCES: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Hannukah, Tu B'shvat, Purim, Passover, Yom Ha'shoah, Shabbat, Havdalah