Mickey Allen, Joyce Cotton, and Lucille Shneider have been fast friends since moving to Shillman House, a senior-living community in Framingham, Massachusetts, more than a half-dozen years ago. They enjoy a close camaraderie, socializing and eating meals together.
So this past fall, when 2Life Communities invited residents of its four Greater Boston senior-living campuses—including Shillman House—to become b’nai mitzvah, the three women jumped at the chance. “It was an opportunity not to be missed. But you also must be willing to make a major commitment,” Allen told me when I met with the trio in late April, two weeks before the ceremony—a sentiment her friends immediately echoed.
Allen proudly showed me the thick course book she and her classmates were studying in preparation for a ceremony honoring 22 bar/bat mitzvah candidates—one man and 21 women—from all four campuses. She passionately described their serious learning including studying Jewish theological concepts such as teshuva, discussing Torah and commentaries, learning Torah blessings, and learning to write a d’var Torah as a requirement to complete their studies.
Allen, Cotton, and Shneider grew up in an era when women did not typically become b’not mitzvah. Although Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the daughter of Reconstructionist Judaism founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, became the first American bat mitzvah in 1922, this coming-of-age custom did not catch hold in American synagogues until the 1950s and ’60s.
At 97, Allen is the oldest of the three. The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Europe, she grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and was confirmed at the local Conservative synagogue’s Hebrew school. A mother of three, she has five grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Shneider, 86, was raised in Brooklyn. After attending a strict afternoon Talmud Torah for two years, she convinced her parents to send her to Yiddish school, where she learned to read and write Yiddish. She met her late husband, a Massachusetts native, at a Jewish singles camp in New Hampshire. After their marriage, they settled in Medford, Massachusetts, where they became active volunteers at Temple Shalom, a Conservative congregation. Shneider’s four children recently took her on her first visit to Israel, as a bat mitzvah gift.
“This event is bringing the whole family together, including relatives from New York and New Jersey,” said Sydney Kornbleth, a University of Michigan undergrad and one of Shneider’s eight grandchildren. “She has been so supportive of us, and we are so glad to be there for her and cheer her on.”
At the age of 88, Cotton is finally acquiring the Jewish education lacking from her secular Jewish upbringing in Worcester, Massachusetts “I felt I was missing something and wanted to fill in the gaps,” said Cotton, who was active at Temple Beth Shalom—a Reform synagogue in Needham, Massachusetts—but was too busy raising five children to take formal classes. Now a grandmother and great-grandmother (13 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and one on the way), she remains passionate about transmitting Jewish ethical values and love of Israel, which she has visited five times, including three stints with Volunteers for Israel.
Adult bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies have been a fixture at North American synagogues since the 1970s, when Rabbi Al Axelrad of Brandeis University is said to have introduced the custom. In recent years, senior-living communities have followed suit, although mostly on a smaller scale with a few residents from a single facility.
Two years ago, 2Life Communities graduated its first such class of six at its Coleman House campus in Newton, Massachusetts This year, 2Life’s director of village centers, Cindy Katzeff, expanded the program to all of 2Life’s campuses. “I sometimes think that the bar and bat mitzvah are lost on 13-year-olds because they don’t appreciate the experience of learning,” she said, “and this group really enjoys it.”
Giulia Fleishman, a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College, developed the curriculum and taught the classes, together with a cadre of volunteer tutors. The objective was to strengthen Jewish identity and connection in general, rather than achieve specific outcomes such as learning Hebrew. Over the months of preparation, students spent two to three hours a week studying, both in weekly, hour-long class sessions and independently.
Cross-campus programs, such as Kiddush cup and tallit-making workshops, have fostered new friendships among students at the various campuses. And yes, this class of 22—including four nonagenarians and 15 octogenarians—did do mitzvah projects: They sent a book of original blessings to the Pittsburgh Jewish community after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, wrote letters of support after the New Zealand mosque shootings, and organized a collection drive to provide supplies for underprivileged children at JCC Camp Kingswood.
“The preparation for this event has built a cross-campus sense of community to complement our deep sense of community life at each campus,” said Amy Schectman, president and CEO of 2Life Communities. “For us, aging in community means that every older adult has the opportunity for a full life of connection and purpose.” 2Life has established a fund for continued programs and services to keep residents active and engaged.
Students found the process a life-changing journey; one woman told me she no longer blames God for family tragedies such as the premature deaths of her father and husband. Some enjoy the intellectual stimulation of Jewish text study, while others have become attracted to Jewish spirituality and ritual practice. Still others are grateful to finally celebrate the milestone experienced by their brothers, children, and grandchildren.
Barbara Ochs, 76, who grew up in a secular home in the Dorchester section of Boston, now lights Shabbat candles weekly—a practice she started after beginning her bat mitzvah studies last fall. “It has been a beautiful experience, with a feeling of warmth and being part of something bigger,” said Ochs.
Raised a devout Roman Catholic, Jael Carroll first learned about Judaism in 1974 as a student at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology (now Boston College School of Theology and Ministry). Thirty years ago, Jael converted after becoming involved at Fabrangen, a Washington, D.C., havurah. Carroll said she was honored to publicly reaffirm her commitment to Judaism by becoming bat mitzvah, following other “Jews by choice.” “It’s incredible to read Torah,” said 69-year-old Jael, who learned Torah trope for her bat mitzvah. “Reading from the Torah scroll with a yad, I felt privileged in a way I never did before.”
The big day arrived on May 11: A Shabbat afternoon mincha service and ceremony at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts The venue was chosen because its large, handicapped-accessible bimah could comfortably seat the entire group—including a wheelchair, six walkers, and several canes. Friends and relatives from Israel and across the U.S. packed the 700-seat sanctuary to capacity.
Seated in two side-by-side rows on the bimah were 20 b’not mitzvah dressed in their Shabbat finery (two classmates, including the only man in the group, were absent due to illness). The Torah portion that had been read that morning taught the mitzvah of hiddur p’nai zaken: “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old …” (Leviticus 19:32)
Some b’not mitzvah led the congregation in prayer, using the siddur created for the occasion—dedicated in memory of loving relatives and Helen Romer, a classmate who died in March at the age of 84. As a kavanah to the Amidah prayer, 88-year-old Joyce Weinberg read an original poem. More than a dozen students also read excerpts from their divrei Torah, reflecting on the Torah portion, Shabbat and holidays, family memories, and wisdom culled over a lifetime.
The parsha this Shabbat afternoon was Emor. It was the first time that Shneider, Carroll, and 85-year-old Edna Supnik had chanted from a Torah scroll, but their reading was flawless as was that of 92-year-old Miriam Kessler, a regular Torah reader at Temple Reyim of Newton, Massachusetts.
The custom is to read three aliyot at the Shabbat mincha service as a preview to the following week’s Torah portion, but additional readings were added in order to honor every graduate. Called up to chant Torah blessings in six groups of three or four, they wore their new tallitot adorned with personally meaningful verses such as: “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot …” (Pirkei Avot 4:1), “The place upon which you are standing is on holy ground” (Exodus 3:5), “For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10), and “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).
The service ended with the presentation of certificates, corsages, and gifts (necklaces with a Star of David) to the b’not mitzvah. There was no candy-throwing or party with a DJ, but there was an elaborate catered kiddush that included bagels, lox, kugel, tuna, pastry, wine, and soft drinks.
Ochs summed up the whole process succinctly: “I have learned that any age, you put your mind to something, just do it, and go after it.”
(Ed. note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Rabbi Al Axelrad.)
Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.