Elderly Jews Finally Become Adults, Decades After Turning 13

Nine elderly Americans from an Ohio retirement village celebrated their belated bar and bat mitzvahs at the Western Wall.

On the morning of October 15, as young hippie-ish Hasidim beat on drums, singing ecstatically, nine elderly Americans from a retirement village in Cincinnati celebrated their belated bar and bat mitzvahs at Jerusalem's Western Wall.

They came from Cedar Village in Mason, Ohio, which is believed to have made history as the first American retirement facility to bring a group of bar and bat mitzvah "boys" and "girls" to celebrate in Israel.

Just about everyone at the ceremony, caregivers and tour guides included, shed a tear.

One of the reasons for the poignancy was that for many residents, making such a big trip was a mammoth challenge. It wasn't just a matter of packing up and traveling for almost 20 hours; during the 13-day holiday, the organizers pushed residents hard - physically and emotionally.

For some on the trip, even altering their medication schedule according to the time difference was a challenge, and a nurse traveled with the group especially to help the travelers adjust. But once this was done, the residents climbed Masada, hiked in the Golan, toured Yad Vashem and did plenty of shopping.

For one resident, Erica Gordon, 76, the emotional rollercoaster began as soon as she arrived in the Jewish state. Gordon survived the Holocaust and lived in British Mandate Palestine. Prior to the founding of the State of Israel, she immigrated to the United States and, until this trip, had not returned to the region.

Gordon said that she had forgotten much of what she experienced during her time in the region, but the trip triggered memories she thought she had lost. "I said, 'Oh my God, this is the same place,'" she told the Forward on a tour bus. "I knew I would come back - I just didn't know when."

Another reason for the poignancy was that the ceremony was evidence of a major change in Jewish gender politics during participants' lifetimes. Several of the women who were celebrating missed out on a coming-of-age ceremony as children because bat mitzvahs were far less common.

The most moving reference to this came from Sally Korkin, 63. Though she is director of development at the facility and not a resident, she became a bat mitzvah alongside residents because at her childhood synagogue there were no bat mitzvahs.

When she stepped up to the reading desk, she announced, making an allusion to the Torah reading that was the portion of Bereishit (In the Beginning): "In the beginning girls growing up in Rockdale Temple did not become a bat mitzvah, so I did not have that opportunity. In the beginning, I had not considered becoming a bat mitzvah even as an adult... And now today, in Jerusalem, I am honored and privileged in observing this most sacred ceremony."

The ceremony consisted of prayers and a Torah reading, and took place by a secluded section of the Western Wall within the Jerusalem Archaeological Park. It was led by Rabbi Gerry Walter, director of pastoral care at the village, and Rabbi Ruth Alpers, a member of Cedar Village's board of directors.

Celebrants were invited to the Torah in groups and recited the blessing together. Then they were called one by one by Hebrew and English names to read a verse in Hebrew. They were confident, having prepared for several months back in the States. "It was just like learning a poem," said Ethel Regberg, 86, who was dressed in a smart blue blouse with matching earrings. She made the trip with her husband, Paul, 87.

Several of the celebrants gave their caregivers, none of whom was Jewish, the honor of reading the English translation. After delivering their reading, the celebrants gave brief speeches sharing their thoughts on the readings or the occasion. Blessing Sivitz, 89, said in her speech that preparing for the bat mitzvah "has resulted in the blossoming of my own Jewish heart." What the nearby drumming detracted from in terms of audibility, it added to in atmosphere.

A running theme throughout the ceremony was how many of those involved had experienced hard times, often as a result of bereavement, and did not know that they would again find themselves celebrating a simcha. Seymour Tubin, a widower who was celebrating his 86th birthday on the day of the ceremony, explained that the reason he decided to take part in the celebration, even though he was bar mitzvahed at 13, is that his late wife urged him to seize opportunities.

Dressed in attire trendy enough for a first-time bar mitzvah boy, Tubin said that this, his second bar mitzvah, brought back memories of his first, and highlighted how far he has come. "It was hard times - my father had died when I was 7 or 8 months... My position today is much easier," he told the Forward.

Cedar Village residents were not the only ones for whom the trip was a big event. Even though the ratio of caregivers to residents was 1:1, there was fierce competition for the care-giving places. Organizers ended up receiving two applications for every available space. They asked would-be caregivers to write an essay outlining why, in addition to helping residents, they wanted to take part.

One successful applicant, Ghana-born Adu Opoku, a retired international soccer player, could be seen mouthing the words to parts of the Torah reading, and arrived at the Western Wall laden with letters to God from congregants at his church. "I'm a Seventh Day Adventist, and in many respects, our practices are similar to Jewish ones; we observe Shabbat."

Many members of his church consider his chance to visit Israel to be an opportunity to visit "heaven," he said.

Another caregiver, Tanya Jenkins, walking hand in hand with Regberg after the ceremony, said that when Cedar Village residents "talk about Israel, you can see the excitement in their eyes, and I wanted to see the country with them."

Carol Silver Elliott, CEO and president of Cedar Village, said that the idea of the bar and bat mitzvah-oriented trip came about when staff members were beginning to plan an Israel visit and realized that this year is the village's 13th, meaning it is also its bar mitzvah. "And we believe that age is just a number, hence this special trip," Elliott said.