Celebrating Havdalah in Jerusalem last Saturday was particularly poignant for 56-year-old Joan Bergen. Her call to the Torah by Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Adam Wohlberg and Chazzan Howard Glantz of Adath Jeshurun was her first aliyah since the Main Line resident became a Jew by choice just before Thanksgiving.
This time, she had the honor of blessing the Torah as she marked another milestone: becoming a Bat Mitzvah.
The ceremony was even more memorable, she said, because she shared it with 29 other men and women of all ages from the Philadelphia area who flew to Israel on a mission trip organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Altogether, more than 200 people are currently touring the country as part of the local Mega Mission.
Bergen described the experience as “a defining moment" in her continuing spiritual journey. She was immersed in a mikvah by Rabbi Ethan Franzel of Main Line Reform Temple Beth Elohim, who had also officiated during her wedding to her husband, Larry, five years ago.
Bergen said she knew long before the wedding that she wanted to become a member of the tribe. Despite being raised as a Catholic, she always had many Jewish friends and their commitment to performing good deeds and continuing study really resonated with her.
She has embraced her new faith wholeheartedly, attending Friday night Shabbat services and participating in Torah study with her husband on Saturday mornings.
Larry Bergen said that he is “so proud of Joan’s decision to become a Jew," adding that “she has inspired me to become even more connected to my Jewish customs and traditions.”
Arny Leibowitz became a son of the commandment more than 60 years after the traditional Bar Mitzvah age of 13. Back then, he said, “my parents were shop owners in a lower Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood where there were very few Jews." Money was tight and after paying the bills there was little left over for luxuries like Hebrew lessons.
“Yet I always knew in my heart that I was Jewish,” Leibowitz said.
When Leibowitz was 15, his parents sold their store and moved to a Jewish neighborhood in West Philadelphia. The move kindled his interest in Judaism (and Jewish young women). He vowed that after he married, he would raise his children with a rich Jewish background.
He kept his promise yet his personal Jewish journey remained incomplete. He said the Mega Mission provided the ideal opportunity to both see Israel for the very first time and celebrate this special rite of passage.
Like Leibowitz, Marilyn Adelman, 69, and Gail Wiener, 78, celebrated their B’Nai Mitzvot late in life. Both women grew up in an era when girls did not participate in the religious milestone.
Adelman, a new member of Temple Sinai, learned about the mission trip's group B'Nai Mitzvah ceremony from her rabbi.
“I jumped at the opportunity to visit the Jewish homeland and become a Bat Mitzvah,” she said.
Wiener’s parents only had enough money in the family budget to send her brother to Hebrew school. She said she always knew that she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah someday but the timing was never right.
Wiener’s son, Stephen, and daughter-in-law, Ellen, have been involved in Temple Sinai for many years and decided to make the Mega Mission a family affair. They invited other family members to accompany them including Stephen’s brother, Jack, and Ellen’s mother, Janet Cantor, 75. The clan celebrated a double simcha as both family matriarchs decided that now was the perfect time to become daughters of the commandments.
Mazel Tov to all who became B’nai Mitzvot during the mission:
Marilyn Adelman; Gayle and Hannah Crespy; Hannah Freeman; Marcia Levin; Shari Odenheimer; Zachary Schultz; Alex Stroker; Gail Wiener; Rose and Rory Glantz; BettyAnn Monash; Lenore Zakow; Teddy Chiara; Claudia Dunnous; Wilma “Willie” Lorber; Esther “Cyvi” Levin; Ben and Dottie Ohrenstein; Wendy Ross; Debra Shore; Sherrie Savett; Janet Cantor; Ellen and Reb Burwinkle; Arny Leibowitz; Joan Bergen; Stacy Kaplan and three others who wished not to be named.
In addition to local clergy, videographer Sally Mitlas assisted with the ceremony by playing musical accompaniment on her guitar. Mitlas and her crew are traveling with the mission to produce a video about it.
Click "multimedia" for a slideshow and visit www.jewishphilly.org  for a live Twitter feed of photos and stories from the trip.