Eight women, ages 75 to 93, celebrate their bat mitzvah


Coming of age chronologically may occur at 12 or 13, but is it ever too late to seek knowledge, embrace change or welcome new beginnings? Eight local women ranging in age from 75 to 93 who believe in “better late than never” took part in a bat mitzvah ceremony June 5 at Crown Center for Senior Living, 8350 Delcrest Drive in University City, where they all live.

The women are Ann Berin, Rosalie Grosman, Lenora (Lee) Koggan, Lina Melamed, Lorraine Schankman, Bella Sadow, Sylvia Slotkin and Edith (Edie) Sobel. Seven of the women are widows; one is divorced. Five of the eight bat mitzvah celebrants gathered recently to talk about their preparation and expectations for the event.


All the women expressed excitement about the ceremony, though some were taught as youngsters that women do not go up on the bimah or touch the Torah. “I was raised rather strictly, and I’m not sure my father would approve,” said Schankman, 78. She recalled that taking part recently in her great niece’s bat mitzvah, wearing the tallis and kissing the Torah for the first time, was “overwhelming” for her, a taste of previously forbidden fruit.

“Still, what the heck,” said Schankman. “If we’re going to do it, I will go along.”

Berin, 92, reported that when she told her 95-year-old cousin she was to be bat mitzvah, her cousin expressed great surprise. Grosman, 84, said she had had the same reaction from family members and friends, but all have been supportive.

The idea for a late-in-life bat mitzvah developed during classes held at Crown Center. Katie Garland, a volunteer at the residence, teaches “A Taste of Torah,” a discussion group on the weekly Torah portion. In another class, “Simcha Torah,” Crown Center residents had an opportunity to touch the Torah. Four months ago, Slotkin asked Garland about the possibility of having a bat mitzvah, something most women of Slotkin’s generation did not experience.

Garland spoke with Florence Schachter, director of resident and community services at Crown Center, and Schachter approached Nikki Goldstein, the executive director at the residence. Goldstein called Ronit Sherwin, director of Nishmah: The St. Louis Jewish Women’s Project.

“I thought it was a great idea,” said Sherwin. “The fact that these women are interested in learning at this stage of life is inspiring. They come from very different backgrounds – a few were raised Orthodox and one comes from a family that was non-religious.”

Sherwin noted the bat mitzvah is a big step in another way, as well. “The focus for these women – and this is generational – was always caring for others,” she said. “They never thought about their own enrichment as something they needed to take time to do.”

Slotkin, the eldest of the eight women, is delighted about the unexpected opportunity. “As I listened in the classes, I began to realize that I am part of something, and that I had missed a great deal of the great gifts of my religion that were there for me, gifts I had not taken,” said Slotkin.

“What do I imagine it will be like? I don’t know,” Slotkin continued. “We’ll all be part of it, holding hands across the table, and we will enjoy it, just as we enjoy every day. That is how the years are fulfilled.”

Melamed, 75, spent many years living in the Soviet Union, where she was not permitted to practice her religion. “I am not a native of America, and the bat mitzvah is nyet to our tradition,” she said. “We were afraid even to go to the synagogue because of anti-Semitism. We prayed in our homes, underground.”

Melamed came to the United States 18 years ago. “I immigrated to feel free,” she said. “Now I am studying Jewish traditions and history. I am very proud that I am Jewish, that I can go to synagogue now.”

Slotkin pointed out that when you grow up in the Jewish religion, “you know you are a Jew, you know certain prayers, you celebrate the holidays.” She believes that becoming bat mitzvah will deepen her commitment to Judaism. “Afterward, there will be an emotional responsibility, much more than before,” she said. “Afterward, if I hear something in synagogue, I will not only be listening – but hearing.”

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh of Temple B’nai Abraham in Decatur, Ill. who has been meeting with the eight women, will take part in the bat mitzvah ceremony. Rabbi Amy Feder of Congregation Temple Israel will be responsible for the musical selections.

“I am so inspired by their desire and passion to learn, and I also am really struck by and impressed with their openness,” said Hersh. “We tell 13 year-olds that the bat and bar mitzvah is a step, a moment in time for life learning. That is true in this case, as well.”

Berin noted that she hopes that the learning will continue after the ceremony. “I’m enjoying the preparation, the classes, but I feel there is still a lot to learn,” she said. “I hope we can continue to be more involved with the Torah and the Bible.”

Schachter agreed and assured the women that the bat mitzvah will not be the end of the process, but the beginning of a learning process. The women all reported that a favorite class covered the lives of the women of the Bible. “A Russian friend asked me why I study about Jewish women such as Sarah, Esther and Leah,” said Melamed. “I tell her their story is my story, my tradition, too.”

Grosman, who is especially pleased at the opportunity to read the Torah, said she is calming her pre-ceremony jitters by knitting more than usual. Asked whether she is ready to come of age, Grosman laughed and said, “I hope so. In November, I will be 85.”