Several of the women who stood before the Torah Sunday at the Tower One/Tower East elderly complex had always dreamed of having a bat mitzvah ceremony, but the Orthodox Jewish world in which they grew up simply did not permit this rite of passage for girls.
One participant wanted to declare her love not only for Judaism but also for feminism. A third had indeed been become a bat mitzvah before; she wanted to do it again just so so her children could see it this time.
And the one man in the group? He was a recent convert to Judaism.
Bat and bar mitzvah love were in full flower Sunday morning at the complex as 14 elderly residents were called to the Torah in a festive yet serious ceremony in which they formally declared their pride and allegiance to the Jewish tradition usually performed by boys of 13 and girls of 12 or 13.
All the bnai mitzvah — with the exception of Towers chef Gary Levy, the young man who had recently converted — have been living Jewish lives for, oh, 70, 80, 90 years. Many have raised Jewish families and planned such ceremonies for their children. Their own circumstances or gender simply had not permitted them to have one of their own.
For them, Sunday was their day,
Presiding Rabbi Benjamin Scolnic of Temple Beth Sholom put it this way: “Imagine attending bar and bat mitzvahs of their children [and friends], and now it’s your turn. They have honored us with your gifts and devotion. Today is for them.”
All 14 participated in the service, co-led by Scolnic and 96-year-old Izzy Juda. They were called up to the Torah for aliyot. They recited prayers. They made speeches. Then they were presented to the congregation by proud children or other relatives and received, from the Towers, certificates and white prayer shawls.
Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights currently taking place, was invoked and celebrated as part of the service. Towers Board Chairwoman Jackie Koral hit the day’s theme in her remarks: “Many of you were denied a bat mitzvah because you were women. [Now] you will take us even further. Even if you are in your 80s or 90s. You are full of life, and you will blaze the way.”
All the participants had what Scolnic called “their own Jewish biographies and Jewish timetables” explaining why they were at the ceremony.
New Haven Free Public LIbrary staffer Seth Godfrey, for example, was proud of his mother Millie’s life of pursuing social justice. Having grown up among Jewish chicken farmers in the small town of Amston near Moodus in northeastern Connecticut, she along with the boys went to Hebrew school.
“My father was very religious, and he established the Hebrew school we went to,” she said, but no bat mitzvah was in the cards in that early 20th century generation. Godfrey taught second grade in Stamford for many years and then went to work in medical records for both Yale and the APT Foundation.
Why now a bat mitzvah ceremony? a reporter asked.
“Why not?” she replied.
Seth Godfrey provided a little context: His mom had always been active in the Democratic Party. She supported groups working to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Sunday bat mitzvah ceremeony, in his view, was a public declaration of his mom’s spirit of tikkun olam, the Jewish ethical imperative of trying to make the world, in ways large and small, a better place than we found it.
Corky Weinstein, who grew up in Bridgeport, saw her two brothers have wonderful bar mitzvah ceremonies. She said she always dreamed of having one of her own. At the time she didn’t complain, however, neither to parents nor to rabbi, nor to brothers, whom she described as her best friends.
“At that time children were seen not heard,” she said.
On Sunday, Weinstein was heard, singing clearly and strongly her pride and affection in belong to the Children of Israel, of which she was now, with as a bat mitzvah, formally, now a part.
“I used to believe only boys were entitled,” said another of the honorees, Arlene Meckler, a longtime elementary school teacher. Meckler’s family founded a synagogue where she went to Hebrew school. She went on even to study Hebrew language in high school. Yet she never received became a bat mitzvah.
So when her turn came Sunday, she added, in an emphatic tone, that this day, “I declare my love of Judaism and feminism.”
Bette Kozak said she enjoyed her bat mitzvah ceremony even more than those of her visiting sons Scott and Steven, who became bar mitzvah a few decades ago at Temple Beth Sholom.
“I was so nervous with the boys’ bar mitzvahs,” she recalled. “Being so old, it doesn’t make a difference if you make a mistake.”
Scolnic, who had presided in 2009 over the Towers’ previous bat and bar mitzvah group ceremony, called the experience a true honor.
Then, of course, after the last prayer, he declared, “Let’s eat.”
The other bat mitzvah honorees not mentioned above include: Doris Dimenstein; Bertha Kahn; Pear Karmasin; Sharon Lake; Marsha Landsberg; Nancy Rose; Lillian Silverman; Marjorie Sydney; and Beverly Weinstock.
In addition to studying with Scolnic, they all are regular attendees at synagogue services held weekly at the Towers’ own basement synagogue and presided over by Ruthie Greenblatt, who helped prepare the participants for their big day.