It's pretty standard for synagogues to require a ticket for entry into High Holiday services. But whoever heard of needing tickets for a seat in the sanctuary on a Shabbat morning in mid-August — up in the Poconos, no less?
But things have always operated in a "counterseasonal" manner at Congregation B'nai Harim, a 13-year-old Reform synagogue situated at 1,800 feet above sea level in Pocono Pines in Monroe County. The congregation, "Children of the Mountains" is busiest in the summertime, when most congregations scale back their activities.
This past Shabbat, the five-year-old building, located just off well-trafficked Route 940, had rarely, if ever, been busier.
More than 150 congregants and relatives crowded into the sanctuary, and a few without tickets had to sit in the library to watch the proceedings on closed circuit TV. Even the full tree branches, interspersed with patches of blue alpine sky, seemed to press against the windows, as if wishing to see.
To help mark the synagogue's 13th anniversary, 20 women between the ages of 38 and 82 and one 70-year-old man — a recent convert to Judaism — celebrated their adult B'nai Mitzvot in front of friends and family members. With each participant allotted only four guest tickets, space inside the sanctuary was at a premium.
Many of the women, most of them in their 60s and 70s, hadn't been given the chance to become Bat Mitzvah at their childhood synagogues in New York, New Jersey or Pennsylvania. Some didn't know the basics of the Hebrew alphabet. So learning to recite a verse from Deuteronomy proved an intensive, two-year effort, one marked by a number of setbacks and frustrations before they emerged triumphant.
"They made a commitment and they followed through and that involved beginning from scratch," said Gene Schneider, a 78-year-old founding member of the congregation who was born in Jerusalem and volunteered to teach Hebrew to the group. "Age is a problem, the memory is not as acute, so it was a matter of repetition and practice."
Three years ago his wife, Anita, a former president of the temple, remarked that she'd never had a Bat Mitzvah and wouldn't it be nice to have one when the synagogue turned 13. The idea soon snowballed, and Schneider had his hands full, keeping weekly phone appointments with each of his students while spending the winter months in Florida.
"They began to really come together as a real chevrah, sharing their Jewish journeys. It's awe-inspiring," said Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, who works part-time for the synagogue and lives in New York State.
A Religious Home Run
As the Torah service progressed, after each member of the group completed her portion, several others — including current synagogue president Honi Grasing — delivered high-fives to a row of seated participants, like base runners returning to the dugout after crossing home plate.
Many of the participants said they'd never considered having a Bat Mitzvah but leapt at the chance when it was proposed. Some viewed it as an extension of an effort to create a year-round, cohesive Jewish community in a neck of the woods where one hadn't really existed. (There are longstanding synagogues in Stroudsburg and Scranton but they are at least a half-hour away.)
For others, the occasion was both deeply personal and religious. One member noted that, with many retirees living in the area without other family members nearby, the synagogue has become a kind of surrogate family.
Incorporated in 1996, the congregation has about 80 member families. In the beginning, services were held in people's homes before moving to a Catholic church. The synagogue building was completed in 2004. Now, members said, they've begun to outgrow this building, although there are currently no plans to expand.
Most members consider the Poconos their primary address, although about half head south for part of the winter, said Grasing.
After completing the dress rehearsal a day before Shabbat, tears slowly formed in the eyes of 82-year-old Shirley Orgel, who splits her time between Queens, N.Y., and a home seven miles from B'nai Harim. She'd been thinking of her late parents, she said. While Orgel was raised Orthodox, and was never allowed to read from the Torah in her synagogue, she sensed that they would have approved and been proud.
"The people here are special and I wanted to be a part of that," said Orgel. "And besides which, I am extremely interested in Judaism. I take classes at Queens College all the time."
For Harriet Gelbart, who lives most of the year in Rydal but also has a house in Pocono Pines, her Bat Mitzvah was the best part of a difficult year. Gelbart has had heart trouble and even missed the dress rehearsal because she needed to go to the hospital.
But nothing was going to keep the 73-year-old from the service, and she managed to have friends and family over to her vacation home afterwards.
"It was more than I expected. This was a real highlight, it was just a terrific," said Gelbart.
Peggie and Jim Hannan, married for 35 years and year-round Pocono residents, read from the Torah consecutively. When Jim Hannan finished his verse — he had spoken softly but confidently — he walked toward the edge of the bimah where his wife stood and offered her a brief kiss. Each draped in a tallit, they clasped hands.
Jim Hannan, a Cleveland native, was raised a Lutheran but considered himself without a religion for most of his adult life. While he has attended synagogues for years, it was his role in helping to start B'nai Harim that moved him in a new direction. He also said he became intrigued by the Reform movement's emphasis on both affirming and questioning "the understanding of the divine presence" of God. Several years ago, he began the actual conversion process.
He said that dividing the Torah portion among 21 people, and having to learn just a fraction of it, made the whole process less daunting.
For his wife, the day resonated in many ways. "If I had just done this at 13, it would have been because my parents forced me to. Now it really has meaning," said Peggy Hannan. "It's another way of publicly stating my commitment to Judaism. And, of course, it helps that my husband was here alongside me. I mean, what a joy. I was Bat Mitzvahed with my husband and 19 of our closest friends!