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89-year-old Bat Mitzvah Girls

Sara Zwerin, 89, of Sunrise, Fla., barely can walk and is legally blind, but she is an avid card player who plays canasta at Daniel D. Cantor Senior Center three times a week, using special large-print cards.

And, as of last week, she is also a bat mitzvah.

Like most elderly Jewish women, Zwerin never had a bat mitzvah, since the coming-of-age ritual was offered only to males when she was growing up. So when the senior center announced that in conjunction with its 13th anniversary, it was going to offer bar and bat mitzvahs to seniors, Zwerin signed up. She prepared for the big day with a young tutor from the David Posnack Hebrew Day School, who made a tape for her to study at home. And it all paid off, when, in addition to her 96-year-old husband, Sol, in attendance were Zwerin’s daughter, who flew in from Maryland; her son, who drove his eight-wheeler in from Minnesota, and her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, who traveled from the west coast of Florida.

“They were so proud,” Zwerin said. “I was shaking like a leaf, but the rabbi told me that Barbra Streisand is nervous before every performance. I said, ‘You’re comparing me to Barbra Streisand?’”

In fact, Zwerin was one of 27 women and six men, all of whom were senior citizens, who stood on the bimah last month, read their assigned prayers, received blessings and a complimentary prayer shawl from the rabbi, and later joined in a gala celebration with (for those who were able) dancing, music and a kosher feast.

The center is taking part in what is becoming something of a trend nationally. Before the 1950s, the ancient Jewish ritual that is conducted when one turns 13, to symbolize the journey to manhood or womanhood, was not offered to girls. So, many women, feeling left out when a brother got his bar mitzvah, secretly yearned for their own. And some men whose families fled Eastern Europe during the Holocaust missed this tradition and never have had the time to fulfill it.

Synagogues and senior centers, particularly in retiree areas, are working to accommodate that desire, often pairing up the older “bat mitzvah girl” with a 13-year-old recent bat mitzvah girl to provide her once-a-week tutoring a couple of months before the event. Here’s a byproduct of the pairing: Friendships between the young and old devotees are often formed.

Recently, at a Sanibel, Fla., synagogue that caters to seniors, a 90-year-old woman became a bat mitzvah. An 82-year-old Modesto, Calif., woman also enjoyed this rite of passage in recent years, becoming fluent in Hebrew during her intense year of preparation.

At the center in Sunrise, the event was intended to coincide with its 13th anniversary. The center offers daily kosher meals, social activities and an Alzheimer’s day program to area seniors. The plan is advertised through press releases and through announcements.

Delores Williams, the center’s administrative assistant, reported that the plan went better than expected. Forty-eight people signed up, and 33 actually followed through with their weekly Hebrew studies. The center partnered up with the local David Posnack Hebrew Day School to pair young students with seniors. Jewish Family Services of Broward County provided its rabbi, Cheryl Jacobs, to perform the joint ceremony.

Some of the seniors needed walkers and canes, and three were blind, but all made it through the ceremony, chanting the half-English, half-Hebrew prayers they had studied in front of some 300 attendees. Most made it to the gala the next night, also held at the festively decorated senior center, and many had family in attendance. Some seniors’ children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren flew in from out of town to witness the event.

“It was hard studying, because I’m legally blind,” said Betty Riff, one of three seniors chosen to give a special speech in Yiddish. “But I’m glad I did it. It was very inspiring. It turned out beautiful. I didn’t know that much about Judaism before. I wanted to learn more.”

Riff’s son, Howard, who lives with her, proudly shot several rolls of film of his mom.

“She was excited to go to her classes every week,” he said. “I saw a lot of people with tears in their eyes when she gave her speech about her grandmother.”

Ziff studied her speech and prayers on a special magnified monitor called a CCTV in her home for two months before the event. “I would hear her practicing out loud all the time,” her nephew said.

Riff, who lives in a retiree community in South Florida, was raised in an Orthodox home in Manhattan. But others, including Zwerin, were less acquainted with the trappings of tradition.

The fact that the ceremony was “so modern” made Zwerin, who does not speak Hebrew, feel comfortable. “The rabbi is so modern, she wore the shortest skirt of everyone,” she laughed.

Evelyn Stifelman, 83, of Lauderdale Lakes, also came from a nonreligious home in which both parents spoke English. But she’s always wanted to learn more about Judaism.

“I thought the bas mitzvah would be a nice thing,” she said. “I didn’t know that much about Judaism. They didn’t have bas mitzvahs when I was 13.”

Stifelman’s two daughters, who live in South Florida, attended. “It all turned out beautiful,” she said.

Jacobs promised to return to the center to continue her new congregants’ studies. And that, say rabbis, is exactly the point.

“I always love doing bar mitzvahs and bas mitzvahs for seniors,” said Rabbi Randall Konigsburg of Temple Sinai of Hollywood, another South Florida synagogue. “Any time you get people who are studying Torah and exploring their spirituality, now that can’t be bad.”

Julie Kay is a writer based in South Florida. She has written for The Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post, the Daily Business Review and other publications.

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