The small auditorium at Paul’s Run Retirement Community in Northeast Philadelphia was packed with people of all ages. Every seat filled. Visitors and guests were buzzing with excitement. 16 elderly women, ages 85 to 100, were dressed in their finest and sat in a row chairs that lined the width of the stage. Many of them puzzled at the crowd before them, still trying to wrap their heads around what was about to take place – their Bat Mitzvah celebration.
A Bat Mitzvah celebration recognizes a Jewish girl’s passage into adulthood at age 12 or 13. Orthodox Judaism traditionally does not honor women with a Bat Mitzvah celebration, because girls have historically have not permitted to be called to the Torah and read from the sacred text. This is a tradition reserved only for boys in Orthodox Judaism. 70-plus years ago, the woman on this stage didn’t have the opportunity for a Bat Mitzvah. That all changed this year at Paul’s Run.
“I feel really good and a little different, because not many old people do this,” said 90-year old Helen Marimow. “I asked my grandson if would he come and he said, ‘Mom-Mom, weren’t you at my Bar Mitzvah? It made me grab him and kiss him!”
Helen and 15 other residents have been meeting once a week with Rabbi-intern Anne since the fall, learning how to read Hebrew, learning prayers and reading the Torah for the first time.
“This woke up something in me that was buried for years,” said Libby Goldstein, 94, who admits she drifted away from her religion later in life.
“I am feeling so grateful, where we’re living that we’re able to do this here,” added Renee Marke, 87.
A Bat Mitzvah service calls for a girl to walk up to the Torah, stand before the crowd and read from the holy text, but the Paul’s Run ceremony had to be modified, due to the honorees’ ages and mobility. Every one of the 16 women either used a walker or a wheelchair. So they remained in their seats with copies of the passages of their assigned readings and when it was time for them to read aloud, someone brought a microphone over to them.
Rabbi-intern Anne praised the women through the service, calling them courageous and strong. She told the crowd how the women remained committed to their weekly study sessions, despite illnesses, doctor’s appointments, volunteer commitments and meetings.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she told the women. “You’ve changed tradition. I love you all.”