As her name is called, she approaches the Torah scroll with a mix of emotions: excitement, anxiety, trepidation. In movements choreographed and practiced, she touches the Torah with her tallit, recites ancient blessings, symbolically accepting upon herself the responsibility to assure the continuation of Jewish life as a Bat Mitzvah.
Having witnessed more than 1,500 such ceremonies in the third of a century during which I have served as a pulpit rabbi, I never cease to be amazed at the sanctity and power of this moment. At the same time, as I watch a young person at the beginning of his or her journey, I wonder how that particular young person will fulfill the responsibility that is his or her mandate. Will this young person, dressed in beautiful new clothes, wrapped in a new tallit, be able to serve as the next link in a chain that stretches back thousands of years? That is a formidable challenge for a young person — or any person — to accept.
Growing up in New York, my father, Louis Cooper, never worried about such a challenge. Upon reaching this country, his parents had shed all outward vestiges of their lives in Poland, including Judaism. For them, it was an archaic religion, an anachronism, out of place in this new world. It was not until my father’s father died at age 59 that my father first entered a synagogue. The rabbi told him he needed to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. My father knew nothing of the prayer. Uncomfortable and feeling unprepared, he left the synagogue and did not return until he married my mother, many years later.
Looking back over the past 40 or 50 years, it occurs to me that, although my father would support our Jewish upbringing, there was never a time when he felt connected to anything Jewish beyond our family. His Jewish world was limited to the home that my mother created. It was not until last year, at age 89, that he, for the first time, found his Jewish community. Last year, after much prodding, my father entered Martins Run, a Jewish Life Care Community in Media, about 20 minutes from my home.
At first, he was resistant. Once he had moved in, though, he became involved in every aspect of the life of that community. On the first Friday after he moved in, I called my father to wish him a Shabbat Shalom.
There was an edge to his voice. “Why are you calling now? I am in services!” When I responded with surprise, he seemed hurt. “What is so surprising?” he asked.
“Well, I am surprised because you have never gone to shul on your own in your entire life.”
“Well,” he responded, “I am going to shul every week now!” And he has.
On the morning of April 22, 10 months to the day since moving in, my father had his “Bar Mitzvah.” Of course, we knew that in order to become a Bar Mitzvah one need only reach one’s 13th birthday (12th, for a girl). However, for my father, who had never been encouraged to recite a prayer, who never before felt the support of a community, his 90th birthday was the occasion that brought him to the Torah, with the sense of reverence and trepidation of any Bar Mitzvah. For the first time in his life, he had felt the power and beauty of being part of a Jewish community, his Jewish community.
The challenge of Jewish life today, as it has always been, is not about transmitting knowledge. Judaism cannot be transmitted as information. The challenge of Jewish life is finding community. Judaism must be experienced, and those experiences require participation and involvement.
At the end of his “Bar Mitzvah” service, where he recited only the Torah blessing, cries of “mazel tov” and “l’chaim” were showered upon my father along with candy. His accomplishments, impressive indeed, for a nonagenarian, were facilitated by my wife, Lori, who taught him the blessings, and by the rabbi at the facility, Meryl Crean, who orchestrated the entire service.
But the real heroes of the day were the members of a supportive and warm community at Martins Run, who embraced my father from the moment he arrived. I am confident that they will continue to support him on his own Jewish journey, a journey that seems to have only just begun.
Rabbi Neil Cooper is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood.