BY ELIZABETH FRIEDLY / AJT//

In January, nine members of Congregation Ner Tamid reached a milestone in their faith as the congregation’s first adult b’nai mitzvah.

Congregation Ner Tamid’s b’nai mitzvah class: Julie Segal (L-R), Julie Berenson, Rebecca Sussman, Kim Epstein, Jeff Epstein, Gail Teren, Kristine Goldstein, Susan Goldstein and Nicole Moseson – stand at the bimah with their teacher, Rabbi Thomas P. Liebschutz. PHOTO/courtesy Kim Epstein

Congregation Ner Tamid’s b’nai mitzvah class: Julie Segal (L-R), Julie Berenson, Rebecca Sussman, Kim Epstein, Jeff Epstein, Gail Teren, Kristine Goldstein, Susan Goldstein and Nicole Moseson – stand at the bimah with their teacher, Rabbi Thomas P. Liebschutz. PHOTO/courtesy Kim Epstein

In the spring of last year, Rabbi Thomas Liebschutz was approached by members hoping to become bat/bar mitzvahs after being unable to experience the simcha at the traditional age. By that April, classes had begun.

Every other Sunday for nine months, students met at members’ homes, gathering around finger food and dining room tables to gain a deeper understanding of Judaism. Led by Rabbi Liebschutz, the lessons were split evenly between two books.

The first half of each session, taught solely in English, focused on general Jewish education with “The Jewish Lights.” The second hour was devoted to “Gates of Prayer” and learning the Hebrew of two to three prayers per class.

Ages and backgrounds of the students varied drastically. The class consisted of one college student in her 20s, two grandmothers and six middle-aged parents.

“There was that wonderful balance in terms of age distribution,” explained Rabbi Liebschutz, “in that they older leant their wisdom to the younger and the younger leant their enthusiasm – if not wisdom – to the older.”

Taking It on as a Tandem

Of the nine students, Kim and Jeff Epstein were the only couple to take part in the program together. Born Jewish but not called to the Torah at the traditional age of 13, Jeff imagined one day holding a double bar mitzvah with his child.

“You realize pretty quick, though, it’s kind of like a double wedding,” Epstein laughed. “It’s not fair to your child. You’re stealing from their moment.”

Although no joint ceremonies were held, the Epsteins had three bat/bar mitzvahs in the span of less than a year. In May of 2012, their daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah, and a mere eight months later both her parents completed their own b’nai mitzvah.

Kim had recently converted, and the idea had been with Jeff all throughout his life. But it was, in fact, the Epsteins’ daughter’s experience that gave them the final push.

“As my daughter was going through it, I got closer to the experience and probably had more of a yearning for moving to the next step of this journey more than ever,” said Jeff. “You see her go through it and her happiness and joy. You see her culmination, the success she had and the pride she had.”

Sharing the experience as a couple only enriched the already meaningful process. For example, Kim and Jeff cited the spirited car rides to and from classes, acting as sounding boards for one another; by talking with each other, they were able to get a head start on the conversation.

“As a couple, we could bounce ideas off each other between classes,” said Kim of their time spent discussing the readings and going through prayers.

“It made it more special. I’m sure it would have been wonderful [on my own], but having her there, you get to work together,” agreed Jeff. “I hate to say we got more out of it, but we probably had more daily – or certainly more frequent – conversations in-between classes than maybe the other seven [students].”

According to the Rabbi Liebschutz, members of the class knew the basics thanks to Passover Seders, but many didn’t yet know the larger context behind the tradition. For example, some discovered the text supporting the practice of leaving a fifth cup for Elijah.

“So I have nine people now who are infinitely more aware and familiar with the structure of the prayers, why we have the prayers in the order that we do and what they mean,” said Rabbi Liebschutz.

But why were these adult members compelled to undergo the process in the first place?

“They felt a deficit,” Rabbi Liebschutz answered. “They felt that they needed to compensate for that, and they wanted to confirm their identities. Not that they didn’t know they were Jews, but like I said, their comfort with the service and to feel that it is their own in a way that they didn’t before.”

Nine New Children of the Torah

On the big day, anticipation in the Epstein household was high. Jeff describes a certain energy in the air, an excitement that led all the way up the last few minutes before the service.

“There was a little bit of jitters because you’re getting in front of a congregation, you’re putting yourself out there,” he said, then smiled. “You know, 12- or 13-year-olds mess up, and it’s kind of cute. If a 45-year-old does, it’s like, [people think] ‘What’re they doing?’”

Class and teacher were pleasantly surprised by the show of support from the rest of the congregation. Upon arriving, they were met with a large crowd and plenty of warm welcomes.

Jeff describes the service itself as falling into place, despite the apprehension of bringing so many parts together. Liebschutz deemed the ceremony “remarkable.” The group appeared together, dividing up prayers and each sharing their own personal divrei Torah.

“Particularly in my d’var Torah, I spoke to the fact that this is just a step, it’s not the end. You kind of have to remind yourself from time to time,” said Jeff.

The cliché goes, it’s not as much about the destination as it is the journey. The group came away with a sense of camaraderie, forming connections and friendships that might otherwise have passed them by.

“Unequivocally, I’ve had many wonderful experiences with bar/bat mitzvahs with the kids, and certainly each one is unique,” said Rabbi Liebschutz. “But in terms of adult services – aside from the High Holy Days – this was the most meaningful shabbos that I’ve ever had since coming to the congregation.”

Both Kim and Jeff say that their age and the program’s group setting greatly enhanced their b’nai mitzvah process. They mention the benefit of dividing up the workload, as well as the added meaning and significance from their years of waiting. Both also hope that, as the bat mitzvah of their daughter did for them, this simcha will be an inspiration to others as well.

“As an adult going through it, I was able to have a perspective of what it means from the beginning to the end. I probably enjoyed it more as an adult than I would have as a child, because you realize you’re going to go through something special,” said Jeff. “It’s been 33 years in the making, is it was a little bit of a sense of relief.”