It was a typical Bar Mitzvah in many ways: The Bar Mitzvah boy chanted the blessings over the Torah, his family looked on with pride, and when it was all over, the guests danced the hora and enjoyed a festive meal, complete with a blue-and-white sheet cake with the words "Mazel Tov" written across it.
But at the recent ceremony at Perelman Jewish Day School's Stern Center in Wynnewood, the Bar Mitzvah boys, along with a few Bat Mitzvah celebrants as well, weren't really boys and girls at all, but rather men and woman — and "mature" men and women by pretty much anyone's standards.
"We were a poor family, and with three other brothers, we could never afford to have a Bar Mitzvah," said Sam Blyweiss, who at 93 was the oldest of the five men and women who celebrated their coming-of-age rituals last week. "I'm 80 years late, but it feels really good."
The B'nai Mitzvah ceremony, given the title "L'Dor Vador," brought together seniors from the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia together with elementary-school students from Perelman — and also included young adults from Drexel University watching on from the synagogue pews.
It was the brainchild of Blyweiss, who casually mentioned at a visit to Perelman last year that he had never become a Bar Mitzvah. That got the ball rolling; and after months of planning, the idea became a reality.
"This is learning firsthand about the passing on of Judaism," stated Marjie Surdem, a teacher at Perelman who organized the service. "In Judaism, it's never too late."
The ceremony, which filled the Perelman synagogue to capacity, was led by the students, who took the Torah out of the ark and passed it to the seniors, who each held the scroll until it was brought to the bimah.
'Fulfillment of a Dream'
For Rachel Garber, 65, the service was the "fulfillment of a dream."
"For me, this is about coming full circle," said Garber, who converted to Judaism. "It's also really important for the kids to see that age doesn't have to deter you from fulfilling a dream."
As part of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah learning, the five adults met monthly with Cantor Alan Edwards of the Stiffel Senior Center, who taught the group the various Torah blessings, prayers and other general concepts pertinent to their studies.
Although they didn't study with the Perelman students, the ceremony itself was interactive, with fifth-graders reading from the Torah as the seniors looked on and chanted the blessings.
The third- and fourth-grade classes joined in with singing as well.
Many of the students know the seniors from previous intergenerational activities, though this year's "L'Dor Vador" program was the first.
Meanwhile, students from Drexel University watched the ceremony as part of a course in modern Jewish history taught by Rakhmiel Peltz, who directs the university's Judaic Studies Program.
"This is ensuring that there is continuity," said Peltz. "This isn't just about bringing young people and old people together. This is about learning together. The seniors feel that there is indeed a future."
'That Is Just So Great'
For some of the seniors, the ceremony presented an opportunity to celebrate their Judaism in a way they never had before.
"My two children are rabbis, and my love of Judaism has never altered," said Mildred Kravitz, a Philadelphia native. "In those days, girls never had a Bat Mitzvah, and so when I heard what Perelman was doing, I thought: 'That is just so great.' "
But for some participants, this was actually a repeat affair.
Nate Pepper, 81, for example, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13, but jumped at the chance for a repeat performance with a younger generation.
"I never got married or had children, so this is very significant to me," he said as he was walked into the hall amid music and celebration. "I have always loved children."
Just then, Talia Rosenberg, a Perelman fifth-grader who lives in Villanova, came over to interrupt his conversation.
"Will you sit at my table?" she asked him.
Popper just smiled, and of course, said yes.