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Each Shabbat scores of proud parents beam from synagogue seats as their sons and daughters become bar and bat mitzvahs.

But what if the roles were reversed?

They were for Dr. Stephen Radinsky of Shaare Zedek. And by accident, quite literally.

Twelve years ago, Radinsky and his wife Myra were involved in what could have been a catastrophic car accident. “I felt the car start wiggling,” he said. “We flew over the median and I was looking into the headlights of a double trailer on Highway 70.” Miraculously no one was injured. Radinsky and his wife walked away without a scratch. But the accident changed the course of his life.

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At 56, Radinsky, a radiologist, retired. He rededicated himself to volunteering in the community. And he became a bar mitzvah. “I thought I had missed out on something in life,” he said having not had a bar mitzvah as a young person. “I was sitting in temple just mouthing the words.”

In May 2008, at age 66, Radinsky read Torah at Shaare Zedek as his daughter, son, four grandchildren and wife who was a 37-year old bat mitzvah herself beamed proudly from their synagogue seats. “It was such a wonderful experience, like God was coming into my life,” he said.

Today Radinsky, having completed the requirements of his bar mitzvah study, still attends and looks forward to weekly Torah study admitting “that was the last thing I would have expected.”

According to Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, Adult Learning Specialist with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in New York, the movement of adults returning to the bima to read Torah continues. “Adult b’nai mitzvahs were very popular in the 90’s as a reaction to individuals, particularly women, not having the opportunity as children,” she said. As the baby boomers aged out, Glazer Farber expected to see a downward trend. However, that hasn’t been the case. “Vibrant programming is continuing to come out in congregations across the country including confirmations and other forms of intensive study followed by celebration,” she said.

Although there is no hard data on the basis for this continued and growing interest, Glazer Farber suspects that it relates in part to the downturn in the economy. “In light of the current situation, people are looking for fulfillment and connection. They want to have experiences that make them feel good about themselves and remind them that life is more important than the passing moments.”

Cyndee Levy, Director of Adult Education at the Central Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) sees the same trend in the St. Louis area across all age brackets. “More people are having an interest in adult learning and a renewed interest in synagogue learning.” Often times, individuals who take classes at CAJE return to their synagogues looking for more adult learning opportunities, including becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, learning trope and continuing with ongoing, in depth Torah study. Short of a formal b’nai mitzvah, Levy also sees a trend in more adults choosing to study alongside their children as they prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs.

Parents are standing side by side with their children on the bima as well.

Marsha Weisel, of Congregation B’nai Amoona, at 43, read alongside her son at his bar mitzvah and again at 45 with her daughter. Coached both times by her oldest daughter Rachel, Weisel not only wanted to understand what her children were going through, but also wanted her own sense of accomplishment.

Weisel did not have a bat mitzvah as a young person growing up in a conservative congregation in Dayton, Ohio. “My children were undertaking such an amazing task, and I wanted to see what it was like for myself,” she explained. Aside from the exhilaration she felt in being so close to the Torah, she said the opportunity brought her closer to her children at a very important time in their lives. Weisel continues to be an active participant in her congregation even though all four of her children are beyond bat and bar mitzvah age.

Cantor Seth Warner, who directs the b’nai mitzvah program at Congregation Shaare Emeth, has also seen an increase in the desire among adults for ongoing study beyond a finite period of study for a bat or bar mitzvah. “I think the age of [adult] women in particular having bat mitzvahs is becoming a thing of the past in the egalitarian environment of the modern synagogue where everyone can participate in everything. The bat or bar mitzvah is not the end to the Jewish journey, but just a sign post along the way.” Adult b’nai mitzvah students go on to visit Israel, learn trope and find other ways to engage in synagogue life.

In addition to Shaare Emeth, which offers a b’nai mitzvah class each year as well as other adult learning programs, opportunities for intensive and ongoing adult study can be found at synagogues across the area.

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation meets with individuals and small groups of adults returning to become b’nai mitzvah structuring each program of study to suit the goal of the student. “Everyone has a different story so when it’s an adult it is less likely to work with a cookie cutter approach,” she said.

Regardless of a student’s motivation to begin study the outcome is often the same. “Students become more active in the community because they have context and an entrance,” Talve said. “They can understand Hebrew and understand that the Torah belongs to them and is a mirror to their soul.”

While Shaare Zedek no longer offers an annual b’nai mitzvah class, Hazzan Joanna Dulkin said individualized study and intensive courses for adults are an important part of synagogue education. “So many people are inspired by seeing others in the community continue to deepen their Jewish education.”

Residents of the Gladys and Henry Crown Center are also deepening their Jewish education. Lorraine Schankman, 80, and seven other Crown Center older adult residents celebrated their bat mitzvah’s last June. Schankman, whose father was the founder of East St. Louis’ only shul, compared her study experience to “being back home” and encouraged anyone who was considering bar or bat mitzvah study to “go for it.”

Florence Schachter, Director of Resident and Community Services at Crown Center, said the “experience really lit a fire” for the eight bat mitzvahs who ranged in age from 76 to 90. The group continues bi-monthly Torah study at the Center under the guidance of Rabbi Eilzabeth Hersh.

As a means of encouraging ongoing study at Union congregations, the URJ rewards commitment to the continued pursuit of Jewish knowledge through its Keva Program. Individuals who complete 100 hours of adult study at Union congregations earn Keva Certificates. Chaver Keva Certificates are offered to those who complete 365 hours of study within a year. The URJ awards the Talmud Torah Citation to congregations after at least 10 percent of its adult members earn Keva Certificates. More information can be found at urj.org.

Beyond adult learning opportunities at area synagogues, CAJE offers a wide array of adult programming from Hebrew courses to the internationally acclaimed Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. The 2010-2011 course offerings will be available in August at cajestl.org.

In the down economy, Warner observes, perhaps, one pretty big positive. “People want to be better and need something in their lives that they can’t see or touch. We’ve come to a time when self-discovery is okay, even encouraged. It’s no longer about the rat race and the bottom line dollar.”

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