After just a few minutes of conversation, it becomes clear that they are a sisterhood. Not an official one with meetings and programs, but one of the heart and spirit.
The 11 women who chose to have a group Bat Mitzvah long after their 13th birthdays shared something unique and precious last summer, something that they know will be a permanent bond. Their group Bat Mitzvah on Aug. 19, 2012 at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim stands as a testament to determination, commitment, pride and, yes, love of Judaism.
It wasn’t easy. And the motivation definitely wasn’t to have an over-the-top party as a reward. The reasons ran deep and wide, but all pointed to one common denominator:
It was time, and they were ready.
It began as so many unexpectedly splendid ideas do — with the posing of a simple question. In this case, it was on a summer 2010 Shabbat morning and it came from Rabbi Jean Claude Klein, spiritual leader of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim. The synagogue was formed by combining a group of synagogues in Northeast Philadelphia, including Beth Judah, Beth Tefilath Israel-Rodeph Zedek, Beth Chaim and Beth Emeth-B’nai Yitzhok.
The question: Would any women in the congregation be interested in learning Hebrew in free classes? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.
A core group began studying with the rabbi, and when the prescribed program ended, there was a yearning for more. That “more” stretched into two years, and culminated in the joint Bat Mitzvah.
“It was wonderful — and touching — to see such enthusiasm,” recalls Rabbi Klein, a Paris-born son of Holocaust survivors who grew up in Montréal, where he was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi. “The women definitely wanted to go on, so the idea of a group Bat Mitzvah also took root, although that was not the initial goal.”
Klein’s wife, Miriam, a veteran teacher, also agreed to work with the women for many months. During the last six months before the Bat Mitzvah, the rabbi became their regular — and rigorous — teacher.
“They wanted it all — not just the education in reading Hebrew, but also more engagement with tradition and general learning,” said Klein, whose special interest is in working with descendants of Jews who submerged their identities because of the persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition. Klein actually helped to create the first organized Jewish community in Sicily in 500 years, and led the first traditional service there since 1493.
His wife shares his enthusiasm for the recent local Bat Mitzvah project. “It was such a dynamic experience for the women — and for me,” says Miriam Klein, mother of five, grandmother of five and a substitute teacher at Politz Hebrew Academy. “I would do it all over again.”
The Learning Curve
“Rewarding” is an understatement for many of the women who participated in this unique learning experience. Denise Ellner’s story is typical:
“My family was not especially observant, but we kids always knew we were Jewish. I never went to Hebrew school because I was told it was not necessary for girls, although some of my friends did attend,” recalls this lifetime resident of North Philadelphia who devoted 38 years to teaching elementary school in the city. “In retrospect, I think that money may have been an issue. My brother and male cousins did go, and they had Bar Mitzvahs.”
So why take on this challenge at this stage of life?
“The time just seemed right. I’m the kind of person who’s always second-guessing myself, but this time, I went on instinct. On the very day that this was announced, I told the rabbi that I was interested.”
A co-president of the sisterhood with fellow Bat Mitzvah celebrant Bobbie Slosberg, Ellner undeniably has a lot of involvement in synagogue life. But preparing for her own Bat Mitzvah was an entirely different experience.
Some Hebrew words, she soon learned, can be real tongue-twisters. And Ellner says that she can’t carry a tune, yet she forced herself to try, and also accepted the honor of reading from the Torah. A specific challenge from one of her sons, she acknowledges, gave her the courage to do so.
Helen Schultz, 73, knew immediately that preparing for a Bat Mitzvah was something she was going to do. She had begun to feel that prayer and synagogue services were increasingly important to her. “Prayer has become a way to become stronger when going through life’s trials — and a way of giving thanks in appreciation for the sweetness of life,” says this retired speech therapist with a master’s degree in speech pathology.
Schultz had started to learn basic Hebrew 45 years ago at a different synagogue, but she was still hungry for more Jewish learning. The culminating event — the group Bat Mitzvah — was particularly wonderful for her because her daughter and son-in-law had just returned from visiting family in Israel, and the presence of other family members from as far away as Alabama created a mini-reunion. “The experience lifted our hearts and souls,” she recalls.
A Family Affair
For many of the 11 celebrants, there was a deep sense of pride at having summitted such a mountain of learning. The experience for Lisa Bitton, one of the youngest members of the group at 48, was the result of a special and unusual motivation.
Bitton is the wife of a cantor at Shaare Shamayim, but her own family history was one of limited observance. Her family did not belong to a synagogue, although her brother did have a Bar Mitzvah after working with a private teacher.
“So I’ve never felt completely comfortable in the synagogue, and being a cantor’s wife would lead some to expect me to be more knowledgeable than I am,” she says.
But Bitton also is a full-time occupational therapist at Magee Rehabilitation, and the mother of two daughters, 14 and 10. Her life is busy — sometimes overwhelmingly so. And there was an interesting time factor: her older daughter had just completed her own Bat Mitzvah when the adult Bat Mitzvah classes were beginning, so, she says, “I thought this would be a great time to start my Jewish education!”
It was, even though Bitton admits that there were times when she wanted to drop out of the classes due to overload. “I’d listen to the prayers on a CD in my car and at lunchtime at work, but I never believed I’d be able to master them. But it all finally came together, and I’m so glad I persevered.”
A Lasting Legacy
Gail Kretchmar, 71, is a single parent of one adult son. She is a retired senior secretary for the School District of Philadelphia’s Board of Education who came from a home where Jewish holidays were celebrated, and dairy and meat were not mixed. But her lack of a formal Jewish education was a lifelong regret.
“So when the opportunity was presented, I was ecstatic,” says Kretchmar — despite the fact that the last eight weeks of study were, in her word, “brutal,” so much so that she and some of the other Bat Mitzvah candidates also met in supplemental study groups. “And now,” she exults, “I am able to follow or read the service in Hebrew!”
Each of the women interviewed expressed a desire to continue learning, and to continue to attend classes to increase their hard-earned knowledge.
Not one of the Bat Mitzvah “girls” will ever forget that Sunday morning in August of last year, when they stood proudly before over 300 guests. Nor will they forget their collective mitzvah project — the creation of decorated food basket centerpieces which were later donated to the JCC Food Pantry. Two of the women also made blankets that were donated to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Each celebrant had a chance to express her reflections on the milestone in a program distributed to audience members.
Perhaps no one expressed it better than Crystal Kanefsky, who wrote, “I know that G-d is listening to all of us and very pleased at what He is seeing today!”
Sally Friedman is a frequent contributor to Special Sections. This article originally appeared in "Simchas," a Jewish Exponent special section.