Never Too Late
Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent a different coming of age.
A group of students sits immersed in Torah study on a recent Wednesday at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. Their teacher, Rabbi Rachel Shere, guides the lesson based on carefully selected texts that delve into the theme of coming of age. In preparation for their b’nai mitzvah, the students listen intently and offer their insights about what it means to become a full-fledged member of a community.
No one squirms, asks to go to the bathroom or raises their hand to take a break for a drink of water. Some sip coffee. Others have a tinge of gray in their hair or beards.
Decades older than their teen counterparts, there is a sizeable population of Jews in the Detroit Metropolitan Area as well as around the nation who are choosing to have a bar or bat mitzvah later in life. While learning Hebrew and the complexities of chanting Torah may be a bit more challenging, older b’nai mitzvah students can bring a wealth of perspective and life experiences and a deeper appreciation for Jewish study, than their younger counterparts.
Nationwide, there has been some discussion in Jewish circles as to whether or not the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is outdated. Many teens and families see the ceremony as the final day of involvement with Jewish education, rather than as an entry point of a fully participating adult in Jewish communal life. Additionally, the status of becoming a Jewish adult and taking on the mitzvot of Judaism is recognized with or without a ceremony and all its extra fanfare.
The first “belated” b’nai mitzvah ceremonies were held at Brandeis University in the 1970s, according to MyJewishLearning.com. Recently, Reboot, a New York City-based organization doing outreach to unaffiliated Jewish millennials, launched an initiative called reBar that asks this age group to re-examine their Jewish identities and their own Jewish coming-of-age ceremony — if they had one at all.
If it did not have much meaning the first time around, would they give it another try, along Jewish learning and living, now that they are at an age when they may be thinking about starting families? Though reBar is active in several U.S. cities, the initiative does not have any activity in Detroit yet.
Whether they never had a bar or bat mitzvah, as in the case of women of older generations, Jewish converts or those looking to recharge their Jewish identities, Jewish adults in Detroit are dedicating themselves to study, finding community and being recognized on the bimah in a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.
For those seeking adult b’nai mitzvah instruction in Detroit, Adat Shalom and Temple Israel of West Bloomfield have established two-year courses. The clergy take turns teaching weekly courses in a group setting. Subjects include basic Judaism, laws, customs and holidays, and Jewish ethics as well as Hebrew literacy and reading the Hebrew of the selected Torah portion and learning Torah trope in the final six months. Temple Emanu-El of Oak Park is planning an adult b’nai mitzvah program in late 2015 or early 2016.
Adat Shalom’s current class is preparing for a ceremony May 24 in time for Shavuot. The next group of students will start classes in January 2016; new students are welcome.
Hazzan Dan Gross teaches with his fellow clergy at Adat Shalom. He said having an adult b’nai mitzvah ceremony timed to Shavuot is symbolic for a group of adults publicly demonstrating their commitment to their Jewish identity and their role in synagogue life as well as their efforts to learn an ancient tradition and carry it into the future. Adults come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Gross said he is very appreciative of the effort students put into learning Hebrew and chanting Torah.
“Everyone comes to class with different levels of reading Hebrew,” he said. “As teachers, we have to be cognizant that everyone is at a different pace and sensitive to the fact that, as an adult, it may be harder to memorize the musical motifs of the trope. But what makes learning with adults enjoyable is that they truly form a chavruta, a community of learners who support one another.”
A few of the course’s graduates have gone on to become regular leaders of daily services or regular Torah readers.
Allison Lee, 54, of Walled Lake, a graduate of the 2013 Adat Shalom class, takes pride in her newly acquired skill of chanting the Ten Commandments. Growing up, Lee had a minimal Jewish education and rarely attended synagogue with her family. Several years into marriage, her husband, son of a Lutheran minister, strongly urged that she delve into the teachings and traditions of Judaism. The desire to raise their daughter, Lydia, as a Jew also accelerated the rate at which she learned.
“Through the years, it was my husband who encouraged me to explore my religion, and little by little we would take on traditions, like lighting Shabbat candles, having holiday meals and keeping a kosher home.”
Lee and Lydia became fast study partners. Both mother and daughter celebrated their bat mitzvot within the last two years.
“I feel such pride when I chant Torah,” Lee said. “I think, ‘Wow, I get to read the voice of God.’”
She offers this advice to adults on the fence about having an adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremony: “If you have the slightest modicum of curiosity, go for it. You will be swept away by the amount of knowledge and a feeling of identity and community you will gain.”
The adult bar/bat mitzvah preparations at Temple Israel involve weekly two-hour classes with concentrations on Jewish study, celebrating Jewish holidays as a class and improving Hebrew literacy. The second year focuses on the Torah service, learning its prayers and preparing a Torah service, according to Rabbi Arianna Gordon. Approximately 21 students are involved in each learning cycle. The current group of students will have a service to celebrate their emergence into Jewish adulthood in October 2016.
“We have learners at all levels, including some who have recently converted to Judaism, and then some Hebrew school dropouts who are circling back to Judaism later in life,” Gordon said. “A lot of the classes involve personal reflective writing on their relationship with God and what about this journey to Jewish adulthood is important to them.”
Gordon said the most important aspect she wants her adult students to gain is a creation of their own smaller Jewish community within the larger scope of Temple Israel.
Jim Rawlinson, 75, of West Bloomfield was very excited to get a new tallit from his life partner, Paula Weberman, when he celebrated his bar mitzvah in 2014. Jim, raised as a Protestant in Vicksburgh, Mich., said he never met a Jewish person until his sophomore year of college.
Though he regularly attended church as an adult, he disagreed with much of its teachings. With little exposure to Jews or Judaism, Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi had an enormous impact on him as a high school student.
“It made me so curious to find out who were these people the Nazis wanted to eliminate,” Rawlinson said. “Later on, in my 20s, the Six-Day War broke out and it made me very upset that so many Arab nations wanted to attack the Jews.”
He spent his professional life as a photographer and learned more about Jewish life-cycle events after he moved to Metro Detroit and documented Jewish weddings and b’nai mitzvah.
“I noticed at these occasions, there was a stronger pull to family and community, a greater warmth than I had ever encountered in the non-Jewish community,” he said.
In 2009, Rawlinson began to attend services at Temple Israel when he decided this would become his spiritual “home.” As he explored the possibility of converting, he took introductory classes in Judaism and Hebrew.
“At a certain point, I realized I wanted to explore Judaism from the inside instead of being an outsider.”
He enrolled in the class, where he felt accepted by his classmates. Alone at night, he studied Hebrew and his Torah reading for hours every night. And come this year’s High Holiday season, he will chant Torah on Yom Kippur morning.
“Becoming a bar mitzvah at this stage of my life has been fabulous,” he said. “I consider Temple Israel my home and could not ever imagine living in a community where I would have to travel a long way to get to a temple.”
Women Role Models
Doreen Millman, 81, of West Bloomfield was one of the first women to become a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel in the 1980s. Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., when girls received a minimal Jewish education and only boys were called to the Torah, she credits the memory of conversations with her grandfather as an inspiration for picking up her Jewish studies later in life and becoming a bat mitzvah.
“He was born in a shtetl, yet he was a very forward-thinking person who believed girls as well as boys should have a Jewish education,” Millman said. “I thought I was crazy for doing it — I was up to my elbows raising my children — but I had a lot of encouragement to take on this challenge.”
Milman said she enjoyed studying Jewish history and learning how to read Torah. Since her bat mitzvah, she has read Torah at Temple Israel on other occasions, including on Yom Kippur.
“I feel much more comfortable in services now,” said Millman, who attends a weekly Torah study group at Temple Israel. “When I go to services on a Shabbat morning, I can comfortably follow along with the Torah reading.”
Other women also expressed pride in ownership of their Jewish learning and becoming a bat mitzvah to serve as a role model, and a study resource, for their own daughters.
Shari Stein of West Bloomfield grew up at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, also at a time when girls were not called to the Torah. It was only well into adulthood, and a few years shy of her own daughters beginning their bat mitzvah studies, that she decided to become a bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41. She said she did it not only to deepen her connection to her own spirituality, but also to serve as a feminist role model of “breaking barriers” for her children.
“[A bat mitzvah] can be much more meaningful as an adult,” said Stein, who admits her years of Jewish education at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills equipped her with the skills to quickly learn and chant from the Torah and glean insights into the sacred texts.
Stein said that 10 years later, the significance of being publicly welcomed into the Jewish community has much meaning and carries through in her spiritual and professional life. A partner at a Birmingham design firm, she has given her talents to many charitable projects, including Yad Ezra.
“Judaism is a constant process of learning and growth, a practice of tikkun olam and of asking yourself what, as a Jew, can I do for my community?”
By Stacy Gittleman, Contributing Writer