The pandemic has brought just so many changes, to so many aspects of our lives — including the Jewish rite of passage of a bar or bat mitzvah. While many of today’s 12- and 13-year-olds may be disappointed with the shift to virtual or delayed ceremonies, 12 women at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Jack Satter House in Revere, Mass., approached the pandemic with a completely different mindset.
Inspired by the quote by Rabbi Hillel from Pirkei Avot, “If not now, when?,” these women, who range in age from 72 to 100, decided that now was the time to continue their Jewish education — and, in August, they celebrated their bat mitzvahs in a socially distanced service.
Growing up in a variety of circumstances, these 12 women did not have the opportunity to become an adult in the eyes of their faith, as bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls did not become popular until the last 50 years or so.
But last August, Satter House resident Shirley Sowsy approached Jewish chaplain Rabbi Lior Nevo. “Almost everything I set out to do, I managed to achieve,” Sowsy told Nevo. “The one thing I haven’t managed to achieve is to have a bat mitzvah. Can you make it happen?”
Nevo readily agreed, and 18 other women joined the bat mitzvah course, which began in December 2019. Within a few months, however, the classes were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit the home especially hard. Residents were required to remain on lockdown in their rooms. Nonetheless, a pared-down group of 13 continued studying with Nevo by phone.
Sadly, the 13th member of the learning group passed away due to complications related to Covid-19. The women honored their friend — and themselves— by defying the odds and completing their mitzvah ceremonies. To preserve social distancing measures, each woman was filmed separately in early August reading one verse from the traditional Rosh Chodesh Elul torah portion. Two weeks later, the videos were compiled into a 35-minute service video that was uploaded to YouTube on August 21 — a perfect and pandemic-friendly way to share this remarkable milestone with family and friends.
As Nevo told WCVB, “something remarkable took place during their journey, while everything seemed unrecognizable one thing stood strong: their faith in God and each other.”
Wearing a custom blue facemask adorned with the group’s rallying cry, “If not now, when?” bat mitzvah celebrant Rose Brown, 100, told KCRA that she was greatly moved by the experience and by learning with the “11 other girls,” as she called them. “I just feel closer to God and I feel that I would like to be a better person,” she said.
Marlene Bloom, 82, told Kveller that while she went to Hebrew school as a child, a bat mitzvah was not considered an option. Now, however, there’s “a different impression of people when you’re learning as adults,” she said. “You realize how precious time is.”
Plus, the bat mitzvah classes gave her and her peers a sense of purpose during these uncertain times. “We had a reason during this horrible time to accomplish something,” she said. “And we felt good. We felt really good.”
Yasher koach to these resilient and incredible women who show us that it’s never too late to follow your dreams!
Header image and interior images courtesy of Hebrew SeniorLife