Barbara’s last bar mitzvah

Pam Droog Jones


At Sam Slaughter’s bar mitzvah on July 14 at Temple Beth El in Jefferson City, Barbara Herman’s career as a Hebrew teacher ended on a high note. Sam was Barbara’s 20th student in 45 years, which may not seem exceptional, but for a tiny congregation in mid-Missouri, it’s extraordinary.

Petite and outgoing, Barbara grew up in Wichita, Kan. She attended Hebrew school but did not have a bat mitvah. “It wasn’t popular then,” Barbara said. She met her husband, Allen, at the University of Missouri in Columbia. They married in 1961 and moved to his hometown, Jefferson City, where his family operated a retail business for 60 years. Barbara managed the wedding department.

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The Hermans attended Temple Beth El, the only one in town. “People just knew about me and asked me if I’d help their children get ready for their bar or bat mitzvah,” she said. Some children learned Hebrew basics from Barbara before they took formal lessons from rabbis in Columbia (including her two sons). But she worked with most students from beginning to end, starting at age 11. She never charged a fee.

Hebrew lessons went easier with some students than others, but “every child had his or her redeeming characteristics,” Barbara said. She recalled one boy who always did better the second time he read his Torah portion. “So on the morning of his bar mitzvah we went to temple early so he could run through it before the guests arrived,” she said. Another boy simply never studied. Finally after a lesson Barbara instructed him to tell his father that was his last one. “His dad asked, if the boy promises to improve, would I give him one more week,” Barbara said. “I don’t know what happened in that house during that week, but it was a miracle!”

At a bat mitzvah two years ago, Barbara actually gave a farewell speech. Afterward, Sam said, “Barbara, I’m almost 11.” So Barbara changed her plans, despite worsening macular degeneration. Sam’s father, Kelly, who never learned Hebrew, faithfully sat in on Sam’s lessons and read Torah at his son’s bar mitzvah.

Barbara said for a long time she wanted to move to a big city. “But there are dozens of rabbis and private Hebrew tutors in a big city. No one would have needed me,” she said. “God put me here for a reason.”