Those looking for that “second act,” discovering deeper meaning in their Judaism later in life, are now well on their way in pursuit of an adult b’nai mitzvah.
“This is my first time running an adult b’nai mitzvah program,” said Daniel Dorsch, senior rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim. “As a group, we began our journey nearly two years ago. In many ways for me, this journey of learning together has been as profoundly meaningful for me as it has been for my students. I’ve enjoyed watching them grow Jewishly and appreciate the quality time that I’ve gotten to spend with them throughout the process.”
The group of 20, with varying motivations, meet with Dorsch on Sundays and may choose throughout the week to hire an ancillary tutor – maybe even by FaceTime. Many participants are either Jews by choice, grew up in traditional homes where women did not become b’nai mitzvah, or grew up in Jewishly secular homes. Still others had a nominal bar or bat mitzvah experience and were looking to engage with deeper learning. The main curriculum is the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School at the Marcus JCC. Over half of the enrollees use the appropriate Melton material relating to Jewish theology to enhance b’nai mitzvah study. The majority of the class is female.
At different times, Rabbi Dorsch has offered additional classes on the b’nai mitzvah track, with each student signing up according to individual needs. These have included a reading crash course for Hebrew decoding, an informal group led by Dorsch that gathered to discuss the meaning of the prayers, and a trope class for those reading Torah for the first time.
Student Allison Barchichat said, “In preparing for my bat mitzvah, it’s VERY hard to learn this as an adult, starting from the ground up, learning the Hebrew alphabet. I have attended services for years but have always followed along ‘by ear.’ My children are approaching bar mitzvah, and when this opportunity came up, I couldn’t say ‘no.’ I am supported by my best friend, who is also in the class. We are learning Torah portions, and it is tough!”
Beverly Barnhard, who began teaching at Etz Chaim in 1992, said, “These students are very courageous and ambitious. I give them a tremendous amount of credit for stepping up and joining the class. They will walk away with great satisfaction, joy, a true sense of accomplishment, and most of all, a feeling that they have found their place as a member of the Jewish people.”
Barnhard spends one to two hours a week with the two students she tutors through the class. Susan Shapiro McCarthy, herself an educator and counselor, said, “Beverly is very patient and motivational, both wonderful qualities for this experience.”
When asked about coaching older students, Barnhard said, “Everybody starts at the beginning and moves up from there. It’s a building of skills.”
Student Lynne Goldman Johannesen said, “My husband, who is not Jewish, and I just celebrated our 40th anniversary. He has always been supportive of my Judaism and how our two sons were raised. When Rabbi Dorsch offered this class, it was my opportunity to become more educated and ‘Jewishly’ spiritual. My husband is as excited and proud as I am for this important accomplishment.”
Her teacher is Linda Weinroth, retired education director at Etz Chaim. “Hundreds of students went through our program, two of whom were Johannesen’s sons. She approached me about teaching her to read Hebrew to participate comfortably in services and being well-prepared in the adult b’nai mitzvah class. For her, it was a meaningful challenge and commitment. For me, it was a pleasure to work with her toward achieving her goals. She is a teacher’s dream student. It’s not harder to work with adult students because this is a choice that they made, not a choice that a child’s parents made. The motivations are so different. “
Dorsch said the timing is appropriate for the celebration. “The completion of our $4.3 million Renewal 2020 campaign, which includes the renovation of our Hammer-Tritt Social Hall and Radow Sanctuary, is scheduled to take place shortly before the b’nai mitzvah celebration. I can think of no greater way to highlight the end of this process than a celebration to mark the renewal and rededication of ourselves to Jewish life.” The Shabbat ceremony is currently postponed and will be rescheduled at a later time.