REVERE – When Audrey Siegel was growing up in Revere in the 1940s, her mother insisted that she attend the Kadima Hebrew School, among the Jewish institutions that were woven into the fabric of the city’s then vibrant and bustling Jewish community. At the time, working-class Jewish immigrant families made up nearly 20 percent of the city’s population.
To her disappointment, Siegel was one of only a few girls. By the time she was a young teen, she was the only girl in a class with 10 boys getting ready to have their bar mitzvahs.
After six years of devoted study, Siegel felt the sting of being left out.
“I wanted a bat mitzvah. But the principal said girls were not supposed to be bat mitzvahed,” she recalled. “I was very jealous.”
“But that was the ruling at that time,” she said.
Last month, Siegel was called to the Torah by Rabbi Lior Nevo at the Jack Satter House. She was one of 12 residents between the ages of 71 and 100 who, on Friday, Aug. 21, celebrated their lifelong dream to have a bat mitzvah. The date was Rosh Chodesh Elul, the start of the Jewish month of Elul. Among the cohort were five others from Revere, including 100-year-old Rose Brown, and two women from Malden.
Late in life, these proudly Jewish women rose to the challenge and said yes to an opportunity denied them as teens.
Even when the pandemic threatened to upturn their plans, they persisted. Rather than gather all together with family and friends in the chapel at the Jack Satter House, the momentous bat mitzvah was re-envisioned as a virtual event.
At the end of March, when the city required the residents at the Hebrew SeniorLife campus to quarantine in their apartments, they shifted their in-person weekly classes to phoning in for text study and lessons, delivered by the staff to their doors.
The classes became a helpful diversion at a time of isolation, reflected Rabbi Nevo, a chaplain in Hebrew SeniorLife’s spiritual care department and a mother of three including an 11-month-old daughter.
There have been 27 confirmed cases of Covid-19 at the Jack Satter House, with 11 deaths due to the virus. There have been no new cases since July 22, according to the Hebrew SeniorLife website.
Some wondered if they should just delay the ceremony.
Then, in their studies of “Pirkei Avot,” the “Lessons of our Ancestors,” the familiar passage attributed to the Talmudic sage Rabbi Hillel, jumped off the page.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
While Rabbi Nevo couldn’t see the women’s faces, the relevance and wisdom of those words was palpable in their voices. They decided to forge ahead.
A socially distanced bat mitzvah
Dressed up in their celebratory attire and wrapped in their prayer shawls, the women went separately to the chapel, where they recited the Torah blessings and read their assigned passage in Hebrew, from the Book of Numbers for Rosh Chodesh, the start of the new month. As part of the ceremony, the women came together outdoors, for a socially distanced ritual of passing the Torah scroll between them.
Miriam Barth, a student volunteer, filmed the women and helped the rabbi edit the segments to create an entire bat mitzvah service.
“I was definitely one of those who cried. I just wished my family could have been there,” said Siegel, who originally had a bat mitzvah in 1988, down the street at Temple B’nai Israel.
The words, “If not now when,” were embroidered in white on their teal blue face masks, handmade by Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz of Temple B’nai Brith of Somerville.
When Rose Brown, 100, was growing up in Dorchester, “teenage girls did not have the opportunity to become a bat mitzvah,” she said in her remarks after being called to the Torah for her bat mitzvah. “I am proud and honored to be a part of this bat mitzvah celebration with the guidance, patience and kindness of our wonderful and dedicated Rabbi Lior,” said Brown, a great grandmother who raised her family in Winthrop and has lived at the Jack Satter House for 22 years.
As a child growing up in Revere, Shirley Sowsy was told that Hebrew school was not for girls, she said in her remarks. But she never let go of her dream to learn Hebrew and have a bat mitzvah.
“Finally, Rabbi Lior decided to do something about it,” she said.
“It was difficult during Covid. But here we are. We are proud and we are happy and especially for me, it was a dream I’ve always had, and at the age of 91, thanks to God, I lived to be bat mitzvahed.”
In addition to Siegel, Sowsy and Brown, the other women who celebrated their bat mitzvahs are: Adele Stacy, 71 (Malden); Paula Weiner, 72 (Malden); Roxanne Ailello, 75 (Revere); Barbara Slayton, 76 (Revere); Diane “DeeDee” Ulyss, 76 (Revere); Judy Yantosca, 79, (Revere) and Marlene Bloom, 82 (Hull).
You can watch the recorded bat mitzvah ceremony on the YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/.