Trisha Roth completed two years of study in order to be ready for her recent bat mitzvah. When the big day came, she wore a tallit that belonged to her late brother. But something else made the experience particularly special.
She was 67.
A grandmother of seven — her youngest had her baby naming the same day as Roth’s ritual — Roth was one of four adults to become b’nai mitzvah at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills on June 29. For baby boomers and others long past the rite’s traditional age of 13, these ceremonies have become a popular option as they seek a deeper, more meaningful connection with Judaism.
“What you get from this experience is the ability to decode Hebrew and the familiarity with services so communal prayer can be part of your life. It’s a door to a deeper connection to Jewish tradition and to the synagogue,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel.
And it’s a door that, when opened later in life, comes with different ramifications and perhaps a deeper sense of meaning, gratitude and humility. Roth, a pediatrician and substance abuse specialist, said she “always wanted to be able to understand Hebrew and wanted to explore the connection between religion and spirituality. Now I feel more open to what it all is.”
She noted that sisterhood — within her extended family and in the congregation — is important to her. She’ll join Geller and classmate Ruth Weisberg on a trip to Jerusalem in November to mark the 25th anniversary of a law giving women the right to wear tallitot and pray aloud at the Western Wall.
Class participants in the two-year program (in other synagogues, it may be less) study together and conclude with a joint ceremony, but each reads a different Torah portion and writes commentary that is personal.
Like many boomer women, Roth didn’t have the opportunity to become a bat mitzvah when she was 13. Neither did Sandra Babcock, 66, who was 52 when she had a bat mitzvah at Temple Emanuel.
Deprived of a Jewish education growing up in New York and New Jersey, Babcock felt that she wasn’t a whole Jew. So she gave her daughter a Jewish day and Hebrew school education and bat mitzvah, and then, “After she was off to college, it was my turn!”
Still working as CEO of a nonprofit while attending weekly classes, the now-retired Babcock said she made a very personal commitment to study Torah, the prayers and the Hebrew language.
“I learned, I chanted, I got my tallit, which I treasure. I feel part of the community,” she said.
At Temple Israel of Hollywood, adult b’nai mitzvah classes tend to be filled with women, as bat mitzvahs weren’t being done in the 1950s and ’60s, according to Rabbi John Rosove. (Historically, things didn’t start to change until the women’s movement hit in the ’70s.)
With the worldliness, education and life experiences that they bring to the table, boomer students — male and female — approach their studies from a different perspective than do their younger counterparts, he said.
“They realize that to be at the core of Jewish tradition they have to study Torah, understand Hebrew and need more knowledge. They want that window into Jewish tradition that they didn’t have before,” Rosove said.
Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the attraction to mature adults goes beyond intellectual learning to include the spiritual and emotional aspects of Jewish life.
“Often, as kids, we’re not ready for that. What are the rituals? What do they mean? How do I make them meaningful for me and my family? That is part of the power of the experience,” he said.
For people like Jill Jupiter, a 62-year-old personal trainer who had a bat mitzvah earlier this year, having the ceremony as a boomer wasn’t about the rite of passage her two daughters experienced as youths; it was about validating and extending an already strong connection to Judaism.
In secular life, she waited until her children were adults, she was divorced, and she had gone into business for herself. And in congregational life, she was already an active member of Temple Israel’s choir and a minyan attendee. While she loved the music and liturgy, she said she would have felt like an impostor by putting a tallit on before having a bat mitzvah.
“Now I don’t,” she said.
Jupiter added that what began as a common goal ended up having a special meaning for each individual in her class.
“Even though it was a group effort and we studied and did mitzvah projects and planned a party together, every one of us is on their own personal spiritual path. I’m definitely continuing to study, pray, observe the holidays and stay involved with the temple.”
For Nancy Gorman, 60, a retired teacher from this year’s b’nai mitzvah class at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, the process allowed her to expand upon previous life experience.
“I’d started going to minyan every night for a year after my dad passed away three years ago. That made me feel more Jewish, and the bat mitzvah was a continuation of that,” she said.
Having married a “Conservative bordering on Orthodox” man, she raised her three children with more observance than she had in her youth. VBS ritual director Yossi Dresner led their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and taught her, too.
“That’s what made it perfect,” said Gorman, who still goes to Friday night minyan.
Rich Slavin, an insurance broker and financial planner in his mid-50s, felt he missed out by not having a bar mitzvah as a boy, when few of his Jewish friends were having them. While his family celebrated Jewish holidays, “We were very assimilated,” he said. College courses and religious friends kindled his interest in Judaism, and he eventually decided to take “the next step in the journey” as a bar mitzvah, which he celebrated this year at VBS.
Slavin said he enjoyed having the group support and gained an increasingly great appreciation for Judaism. He hopes that his 23-year-old son, who quit his studies just shy of 13, will one day follow suit.
Other boomers, like Frank Navi, missed out on taking part in the ritual earlier for other reasons. For him, it was because he grew up in Iran.
“In those days, it wasn’t easy to do,” said the 61-year-old accountant, who immigrated to the United States at 25.
He’s been thinking about taking classes ever since, “But the timing wasn’t right until now.” An active member of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the father of two children who had b’nai mitzvah, he said he’s grateful for the “high level of spirituality” the experience provided last year.
Then there’s Barbara Lloyd Bailey: She’s a Jew by Choice. Catholic by birth, the 51-year-old consultant married her Jewish husband in an interfaith ceremony in 1999 but knew she was going to convert and began the process the following year. She had her bat mitzvah last year at Sinai Temple, where her son will have his bar mitzvah this year.
“My objective was a certain amount of learning so that I could feel comfortable and participate fully as a member of the community. I went in seeking a deepening spiritual connection and understanding, and once we started reading our portion of the Torah, the more meaningful it was to me,” Lloyd Bailey said.
Another byproduct of going through the process was developing supportive connections with her synagogue and her b’nai mitzvah class, she said.
“It makes every aspect of participation in the religious community more accessible once you’ve reached this milestone.”