To hear the residents of Brith Sholom House tell it, Saturdays are usually a fairly quiet affair at the senior living center on Conshohocken Avenue in Philadelphia.
This past Saturday, however, was a bit livelier. Not because of Halloween — that attracts a much younger crowd — but because of the eight women who celebrated their adult Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.
While this milestone is always a reason to celebrate, for these ladies, it was an extra sweet simcha: After all, it was uncommon for a female in the early half of the 20th century to be called to the Torah.
A week before the special day, six of the eight participants gathered in the auditorium at Brith Sholom House for a practice session with Rabbi Dayle Friedman, who eventually led the service. For the event itself, Friedman and a student rabbi conducted a "slightly abridged traditional service" and read the Torah portion, while each member of the class was called to the Torah for an aliyah.
"It's a milestone for me," said South Philly native Ethel Gross, spry and enthusiastic at 82. "My parents couldn't afford for me and my sisters to attend" Hebrew school, though she noted that she learned some Yiddish over the years, which helped when she finally did study Hebrew later in life.
"I can't read as fast as they can in the service — they're on Yom Kippur, and I'm still on Passover," she joked.
In anticipation of the big day, many found themselves thinking back to their childhoods.
"It feels like getting in touch with my roots and with the way I grew up," said Gale Levine Morgan, 67, a retired trauma nurse.
But for some, such as Eleanor Jarosh, 84, the thrill was mixed with a bit of hesitation.
"I feel a little silly at this age — I'm doing something that I should've done at 13," she said.
"This should be the cherry on the cake for you," protested Gross, as others chimed in with words of encouragement.
Friedman pointed out that there's something to be said for being a little older and wiser when called to the Torah — that there's a sense of real reflection that might not always happen as much to teenagers.
"It's about saying, 'No one can take this away from me — this is mine,' " said Friedman.
She Never Even Dreamed It
For one member of the group, however, the day held a different meaning. While nearly everyone in the group is old enough to remember the Holocaust, Mina Jacobs, 82, is an actual survivor.
"Hitler came to murder me, and he committed suicide, and I survived," said Jacobs, her voice quavering a bit as she remarked that she never dreamed this sort of thing might happen.
After all, she said, her father was a very strict Orthodox rabbi; he wouldn't have approved of this sort of thing.
Still, she said: "I'm honored to be a Bas Mitzvah. Of course, it's a little too late, but better late than never."
Friedman noted that adult fervor for such study seems to be spreading: A group of Ohio seniors recently became B'nai Mitzvah in Israel and, at the local level, an intergenerational program was held between the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia, and the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School.
The rabbi, who also runs Hiddur: The Center for Aging and Judaism at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, pointed out that age has little to do with affirming one's commitment to Torah, and that coming to the scrolls later in life shows that these folks "are going to be passionate students of Torah and lovers of Judaism," even in their twilight years.
The ladies all emphasized that though they were the ones being honored, they felt the real credit deserved to go to Michael Schaeffer, the Jewish Family and Children's Service social worker who has worked so closely with them throughout his three years at Brith Sholom House.
Schaeffer acted as a stage manager and facilitator for the entire religious process, which began in August when another resident suggested the idea to him after reading a newspaper story about adult B'nai Mitzvah.
Friedman credited the social worker with providing "the vision, the heart and the elbow grease" to make the whole thing happen.
"He's a marvelous person," declared Gross, calling him "the best thing that has ever happened to this place."