Jewish Journal


June 16, 2005

Young at Heart Get a Turn at the Bimah


Rose Engel practiced her Torah and haftorah portions with an eager diligence. She studied with the rabbi and prepared an essay. Her passion and excitement matched that of most of the synagogue's bat mitzvah candidates, but at 87, she is far from their peers.

Engel is the most senior member of the 31 women who became b'not mitzvah on June 13 at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.

Known as a matriarch in Adat Ari El's community, Engel has been a synagogue member and major donor since 1947. She founded the shul's nursery school 52 years ago. However, Engel was self-conscious of the gap in her Jewish education while she served as a board member for both the shul and its sisterhood.

"When I was young, girls were not bat mitzvahed," said Engel, who was born in Ukraine.

When her family moved to Pittsburgh, an instructor taught a young Engel to read and write Yiddish, but it was her brother who got the formal Jewish education and the bar mitzvah.

"Boys got offered everything," said Engel, whose lifelong love of music was ignited by a hand-me-down violin her brother gave up.

Engel is not alone in her quest for Jewish knowledge and inclusion. Many Jewish women, especially those who were raised when Jewish education was dominated by males, feel limited or inadequate when it comes to participating in Jewish rituals or services. To make up for the loss, many women are becoming adult b'not mitzvah, a practice that began in the late 1970s in mostly Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative synagogues.

According to recent adult bat mitzvah studies, b'not mitzvah candidates hope to gain synagogue skills -- mastering liturgy and feeling competent and authentic in shul settings. While adult b'nai mitzvah occur throughout the year, many Southland shuls hold their adult b'nai mitzvah ceremonies in conjunction with Shavuot, which celebrates the receiving of the Torah.

Meryl Russo, another recent bat mitzvah, simply accepted her "very, very Reform" upbringing and her partial Jewish education as a young woman.

"For me, it was never an option to be bat mitzvahed," the Encino resident said. "The boys got the bar mitzvah and the girls got the wedding."

When her oldest son received his bar mitzvah date two years ago, 45-year-old Russo began craving a deeper connection to Judaism.

"I felt like I could go [to the bar mitzvah] and be there in the audience as a proud mom and observe the experience, or I could have the opportunity to have the experience myself," she said. "I really wanted to feel more included or more bonded."

While becoming a bat mitzvah traditionally means coming-of-age Jewishly and committing to the religion, the ceremony can have an even deeper meaning for an adult candidate.

"I think that because these women have come to [the experience] as adults, it has greater significance to their lives because they're really choosing to do this," said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, the shul's associate rabbi who teaches the class. "They're making an entirely free choice and that can't help but add a layer of meaning to it."

While b'nai mitzvah curriculum can vary from shul to shul, most include a two-year course of study, which focuses on learning to read Hebrew and understanding liturgy. At Adat Ari El, candidates also learn Torah study, rabbinic text, mysticism, Jewish life issues, rituals, ethics and theology. Classes are usually held every few years and are taught by the rabbi and cantor. The shul was home to the first bat mitzvah on the West Coast more than 50 years ago.

While b'nai mitzvah classes across the country are open to both men and women, classes are primarily dominated by females.

"Women, by major proportions, outnumber men in all parts of adult learning," said Diane Tickton Schuster, director of the Institute for Teaching Jewish Adults at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles.

B'nai mitzvah have become a regular part of adult Jewish learning programs.

"We saw a huge upsurge in the '80s, and in the '90s, it became more mainstream," Schuster said.

She attributes the program's success to the benefits of group learning. "The power of learning together is transformative," Schuster said. "One is in dialogue with people who are grappling with the same questions and ways of understanding Judaism and themselves as Jews."

In the Adat Ari El b'not mitzvah class, the women divided into groups of three to read their Torah and haftarah portions. Rose Engel took comfort in the fact that she was going to read Hebrew with two of her classmates. "We decided we're not the best [readers]. We're not the valedictorians," Engel joked before the ceremony, "but we're not the worst. We will survive this."

Kathy Buchsbaum, another recent bat mitzvah, also enjoyed the group experience.

"Taking the class was a unique experience because it was [made up of] all women," said Buchsbaum, who converted to Judaism four years ago before getting married.

At 30, Buchsbaum took pride in being among the youngest in the group. The Sherman Oaks resident, who plans to have a family some day, learned from her experienced classmates and now feels that her bat mitzvah will be helpful in relating Jewishly to her future children.

"Now that I went through it, it's more important for my kids to go through it," she said. "They can't say, 'Mom didn't do it.' A lot of women in the class wanted to impart that on their kids."

While statistics say that the Jewish population is shrinking, the popularity of adult Jewish education makes some experts optimistic. In the United Jewish Communities National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, almost one-quarter (24 percent) of Jewish adults participated in adult Jewish education programs in


"My sense is that the more that people have positive adult Jewish learning experiences, the more it is going to strengthen Jewish identity," said HUC-JIR's Schuster, who feels hopeful about Jewish prosperity. "The more people are educated, the more they will have a connection to quality adult Jewish learning programs."

Russo's recent Jewish education has already changed her life.

"I enjoy services a lot more now," she said. "There's an actual structure to the services that I had no idea about. That's how little that I knew."

Moving slowly with the aid of a walker and taking care to protect the broken wrist she suffered from a recent fall, Engel is more determined that ever to close that gap by becoming a bat mitzvah.

While Engel's classmates and teachers have offered to help her up and down from the bimah during the ceremony to compensate for her physical limitations, Engel is determined to complete the task on her own.

"[My bat mitzvah] confirms my love for Judaism," she said. "No matter what, I'm going to make it."


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