- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009


Norma Medoff made sure her son and daughters studied hard so they could celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs, then she twinkled with pride as the years ticked away and her eight grandchildren did the same.

Now, finally, at 77, she got her turn.

“I have listened to others read from the Torah for over seven decades,” said Mrs. Medoff. “When I got the chance to open the Torah and read my portion, I knew that I had reached a milestone I never imagined I would.”

As a child, she had studied Hebrew but was denied the chance to read before the congregation because of restrictions on an Orthodox Jewish girl growing up in the 1940s.

The coming-of-age milestone typically celebrated by 13-year-old Jewish boys and girls is becoming increasingly popular across the country among those many years older. Some women, like Mrs. Medoff, were never given the chance because of their sex. Others, men and women alike, are converts or had their young lives interrupted by the Holocaust.

As life spans lengthen, many others are celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs for a second - or third time - to embrace an old Jewish tradition.

Mrs. Medoff, a retired social worker, thought her youngest grandson’s bar mitzvah a few years back would be the last she’d attend for some time. But soon after, she decided to study herself, leading to the ceremony with six other women late last month at B’nai Torah, a Conservative congregation here. She attended a twice-weekly class for more than two years and studied at home each day.

Finally, she and her classmates were ready to chant nine or 10 lines from the sacred scroll.

“I can’t tell you the feeling I have that I can do this at my age,” she said.

Among those who helped Mrs. Medoff prepare was George Goldstein, a retired General Electric plant worker who will turn 100 in April.

Mr. Goldstein had his second bar mitzvah at the age of 83, the typical age for such a celebration because it comes 70 years after the initial bar mitzvah, a period of time the Old Testament defines as a full life. Mr. Goldstein decided if he lived another 13 years, he would be bar mitzvahed again, and so he was at the age of 96.

He initially was skeptical about helping older congregants with their Hebrew. Children pick things up so much easier, he thought, and some seeking help were plagued by limitations of age that made it even harder. But he now sees it as a key to his own youth.

“I thought my life was over, but that’s when I started giving bar mitzvah lessons,” he said. “It does keep you young. That’s like drinking from the fountain of youth.”

Synagogues across the country are helping older adults prepare for bar and bat mitzvahs, and rabbis say the ceremony better cements a follower’s Jewish faith.

Rabbi Amy Schwartzman’s Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, just finished a two-year course for adults hoping to be bar and bat mitzvahed. The classes have produced people able to read the Torah before the congregation or help at other times, such as leading prayer at shiva services.

“They’ve become much more invested in their congregation,” she said.

The level of commitment is often different among the old and the young. For a long time, Mrs. Medoff was angry over being denied a bat mitzvah as a girl. In retrospect, she said she got a lot more out of the experience as a woman of a certain age, something Ms. Schwartzman has found, too.

“They come already committed,” she said. “The 13-year-olds, we’re in the process of trying to get more committed.”

No numbers exist on how many adults have bar and bat mitzvahs versus children, but the trend is increasing as more synagogues offer specialized programs and non-Jews are attracted to convert. Whatever the reason for the growth, those who go through a bar or bat mitzvah later in life describe it as an incredibly spiritual experience, and one that can transport them back to a different time.

Henry Butensky, of West Palm Beach, Fla., had his second bar mitzvah four years ago, when he was 83. He was thrilled to discover there was something he had done at 13 that he still could do 70 years later.

“You’re 83, and you feel young again. You’re 13,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”

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