[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 5/4/02 ]
A spiritual coming of age
Religious milestones not just for children
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
About two years later, consumer guru Clark Howard stood in front of a Saturday congregation at The Temple, reading the Torah alongside his daughter Rebecca at a combined bar (his) and bat (hers) mitzvah.
Most Jewish boys have their bar mitzvahs at 13, but when Howard was growing up, unlike boys in Orthodox and Conservative movements, few Reform Jews had the ceremony. So, at 46, Howard joined an impressive number of adults who go back to touch religious milestones they missed along the way.
The rituals that mark passing stages in life are "primary religious stuff," said Don Saliers, William R. Cannon professor of theology and worship at Emory University's Candler School of Theology. "Human beings are symbolic animals and without this, we are diminished."
Howard admits he was a hypocrite when he insisted that Rebecca have a ceremony he never had.
"I wanted her to feel connected to the religion," he says. "I don't even know where that came from. The only way I could demonstrate to her that it was worthwhile was for me to stand up there with her."
Preparing for his bar mitzvah with a class of seven other adults, "for the first time in my life I've actually studied what Judaism is," Howard says. "I knew nothing about my religion two years ago. Now, I could actually assist in leading a service. This is a gift my daughter gave me."
Howard's feeling about Rebecca is not unusual, says Saliers. "Persons like him have some sense that unless the next generation has the memory and the ritual occasions, something very precious is going to be lost."
Wanting to pass along a sense of religious identity "is connected with the deepest things in our lives," he says.
For adults, a symbolic ceremony of induction into a religious group -- an idea that goes back to primitive tribal initiations -- "reinforces a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves," Saliers says. "In a culture so oriented to individual pleasure or individual achievement, the sense of belonging to a common tradition, a common history, is really important."
'Meant so much to me'
Kerri Taylor, 24, knows she could be a Christian without a formal induction into a church, "but for me, in order to honor and praise God, I had to have physical rituals."
Baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church, she completed the initiation process at Easter with a confirmation and first Communion at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
She moved to Atlanta a year and a half ago after graduating from the University of Florida. "I just felt I needed something more," she says. "I was going out into the real world, looking for a real job, moving to Atlanta where I knew no one. I needed a rock, something that was constant in my life."
She began taking classes, called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, in preparation for joining the church.
"It was something so personal," she says. "It meant so much to me. It was the first thing I really set my mind on and went through wholeheartedly. I never had a single doubt."
She especially remembers the procession into the dark cathedral for midnight Mass and the passing of light from a single candle to brighten the sanctuary. "I thought that was very symbolic," she says.
Saliers says many adults who return to the faith of their childhood are seeking the
kind of grounding Taylor wanted.
"There's a yearning to belong that's made difficult in our highly mobile, transient society," he says.
Religious rituals "remind us that we belong to a long history. We belong to the living and the dead. It's what the Christian tradition of 'communion of the saints' is all about."
'Sense of connection'
The tradition is also deep in Judaism and in Eastern religions that revere ancestors.
Saliers says the meaning came home to him in an almost palpable way several years ago when one of his daughters died.
"There's this sense of connection with those you have loved and lost," he says. "How do you keep that from becoming morbid or spooky -- 'X-Files' kind of stuff. It seems to me the way to do that is to have a sense of belonging to a larger tradition that transcends the everydayness and the what-you-see-is-what-you-get world."
Like Howard, WSB-TV newsman Bill Nigut went through a bar mitzvah as an adult.
His commitment was a cumulative effect of being around Holocaust survivors and having conversations with rabbis who urged him to "start acting like" a Jew, he says.
His decision was sealed after moving in 1983 to Atlanta, where he was impressed by the strength of the Jewish community.
"Very gradually, I decided to make more of a commitment, until I finally decided the way to do this was to really plunge in," he says.
His wife grew up in Shearith Israel synagogue. He had his bar mitzvah there in the mid-1990s.
"The thing that attracts me to Judaism are the lessons it teaches me about life. I'm more at peace with my life now," he says.
Some religious traditions have no specific coming-of-age ceremony such as a bar mitzvah or confirmation. Baptists, for example, believe people should be baptized whenever they are ready to commit their lives to Christ. Still, the norm is to come into the church in pre-adolescence or adolescence.
"I personally believe that Christianity is more than a religion. It's a relationship with God through his son, Jesus Christ," says the Rev. Dean Haun, senior pastor of the 7,000-member First Baptist Church of Jonesboro. People form that relationship when they feel the need for it, he says.
"Some people sense that void in their lives at a young age; some don't until they're older, maybe get married, have children," he says. "They begin to think about eternal life, destiny, purpose."
Haun was baptized at 17 but did not grow up as a regular churchgoer. Mostly, he says, his family members
were Christmas-and-Easter Christians. His father had a dramatic conversion experience as an adult and urged his family to follow him into the faith.
As a minister, Haun has baptized adults in their 80s, "one even in the 90s."
Adults who return to the faith "have a whole different perspective on what they're learning," says Rabbi Craig Marantz, director of education at The Temple. Marantz conducted Howard's class.
A 13-year-old may go through bar mitzvah training because his parents insist. Adults come entirely of their own volition, he says. "That's one of the reasons the investment is so powerful and the commitment is so strong."
Howard says he does not yet know what the long-term results of his bar mitzvah will be.
He was "completely indifferent" to his religion before, he says. "Now, I feel warm toward it. I understand the core principles, and I really like them. But I don't know what kind of Jew I'll be after this."
Still, he is now officially recognized as a grown-up in the faith.
He can't resist putting the significance of that into consumer-esque terms.
His United Methodist wife, Lane, pushed him along, he says. "To her, it didn't matter I wasn't the same as her. It was that I was a generic. She wanted me to be a brand name."
Now, he is.
©Copyright 2002, Atlanta Journal-Constitution