Never Too Late


batmitzvahadult

Adult b’nai mitzvah classes represent
a different coming of age.

Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer

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.DSCN2211

Decades older than their teen counter-parts, 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 challeng-ing, 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 discus-sion 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as to whether or not  the traditional age of becoming a bar or bat  mitzvah — 12 for girls and 13 for boys — is  outdated.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 ceremo-nies 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 lev-els 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 learn-ers who support one another.”  Continued Commitment 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 attend-ed 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 adult-hood 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 relation-ship 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.

Exploring Judaism

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, reading 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 celebrations.

“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 fol-low 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?”  ■

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About stacylynngittleman

I have been a public relations professional and reporter -- and always thought I would live in the New York Metro area - before my husband took a job in Rochester, New York. Most in Metro New York can't find Rochester on a map,and neither could I before we moved. I am now a columnist and a freelance writer for Rochester's only daily newspaper, the Democrat & Chronicle. I also am passionate about gardening, fitness and most of all, Jewish education and Israel Advocacy. Here's my perspective on Western New York living - the good, the bad, and the snowy.

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