GLOUCESTER – It will not make the Guinness Book of World Records, but the group of 12 women who celebrated their bat mitzvahs together on the third of August were a first for Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim.
No one could be more pleased than Rabbi Steven Lewis. For several years he had tried to stir interest in adult bar and bat mitzvahs without success, only to be confronted by a grassroots uprising that, according to the Rabbi, “just bubbled up on its own.”
The first later-life bat mitzvah is believed to have taken place under Rabbi Albert Axelrad at Brandeis University in the early 1970s. The record for the largest group celebration of adult bat mitzvahs probably belongs to Hadassah, which has held combined ceremonies for as many as 180 women at its annual conference.
Groups of adults joining to celebrate a belated first observance or for a repeat ritual are not unheard of on the North Shore. Maxine Rosenberg, who is a member of both Ahavat Achim and Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, was one of eight women and one man who took to the bimah at Ner Tamid in April 2018.
The Ahavat Achim group first coalesced around classes taught by Susan Federspiel, who has been teaching Hebrew for adults at the temple for five years. In February of 2018, she was approached by temple member Miriam Weinstein representing a small group who wanted to start from scratch, so Federspiel offered an extra class for beginners. The women found that the study of Hebrew and biblical texts became a slow-acting catalyst for deeper exploration and connection and for the emergence of a community formed from both classes that was ready to pursue bat mitzvahs.
The diverse group spans generations. The youngest is in her 60s, and Irma Cohen proudly declares she is “celebrating the 79th anniversary of turning 13.” Rabbi Lewis saw his role as helping each of the women find their own personal meaning in the process.
“Initially, I just wanted to learn Hebrew, as much for the mental challenge of a new language as anything else,” said Suzanne London, who at 77 is in the middle of the pack. “You know, keeping the mind nimble. Growing up, Judaism meant family holidays and not a lot more. I hated Sunday school and thought that, as a girl, I had made a clean getaway from the bar mitzvah business all my brothers had to go through.”
As the Hebrew class found a growing sense of community and a stronger connection with their pasts, London’s agenda changed. “I knew that if I sat on the sidelines,” she said, “I’d regret it.”
Fern Miller, raised Reform, admitted she had little interest or connection with Judaism growing up. “I couldn’t wait to get it over with. Still I did all the right Jewish things – married a Jewish man, raised my kids Jewish, the whole shtick.”
It was her dying mother’s wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery where her family could visit that started Miller on a new path. Ultimately, that led to learning Hebrew. “Something about the words, the letters themselves, became doorways to deeper experience,” she said. “As Rabbi Lewis put it, they are the building blocks of the universe.
‘Why am I doing this?’ my friends ask. I tell them, ‘I don’t know. It’s not a thought, not even a feeling, kind of a physical pull toward something I’ve been looking for all my life, and there it was, right there in front of me.’ ”
In addition to Weinstein, Cohen, London, and Miller, the bat mitzvah women include Cynthia Brown, Janet Cline, Deborah Dubowy, Ellen Gradwohl, Cynthia Kaplan, Anita Robboy, Judith Rose, and Enid Wise. Together, they led Shabbat services on Aug. 3 at Temple Ahavat Achim, 86 Middle St., Gloucester.
Larry Constantine is a freelance