Lisa Downing was raised as a Roman Catholic. But as an adult, she said, she could not find her footing in Christianity. So she went searching in other religions and it was in Judaism that the Washington native found her footing. She converted in 2019.
As a Jew, she began to feel the absence of never having had a bat mitzvah, that communal welcome into Jewish adulthood. For one reason or another, many adults didn’t have a bar or bat mitzvah. Some, like Downing, are a Jew by choice. many women grew up before the bat mitzvah was commonplace in even liberal synagogues. Or because their families didn’t believe it was necessary to give daughters a Jewish education.
In Downing’s case, she enrolled in Temple Rodef Shalom’s Rodef Chochma (pursuer of wisdom) program that teaches adults the skills that will allow them to be called to the Torah, as every Jewish adult may do. As any bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl may do.
In February, Downing was one of 14 people to become bar or bat mitzvah through the program.
“Seeing the different backgrounds that brought people to Judaism and seeing the different paths they were on was amazing,” she said.
Another member of the group, Jan Pomerantz, became a bat mitzvah at 71. She said that in her childhood on Long Island, her synagogue only boys were allowed the rite of passage.
It was after her retirement the Pomerantz and her husband enrolled in Rodef Chochma. The couple became b’nai mitzvah together at Temple Rodef Shalom.
Cantor Allen Leider, one of the Rodef Chochma teachers, said the course requires self-reflection on the part of the participant.
Of course, when any class meets for that many sessions, there’s a bonding that occurs among the group and a deepening of relationship to both Judaism and to each other,” Leider said.
The program culminated with their bar and bat mitzvah services over the weekend of Feb. 11, with half of the group leading the service on Friday night and the other half leading on Saturday morning.
“We learned a lot,” said Pomerantz, whose mother also became a bat mitzvah later in life. “Every other Sunday morning for 18 months we were together, learning and studying with a clergy member on some subject. Everything from belief in God to the music that we use in services.”
The program takes 18 months to complete. Most people, including Pomerantz, started with basic Hebrew. Leider said learning Hebrew as an adult is challenging, but that everyone in the group was able to get a handle on it.
“It’s already hard for kids to ask for help, but I think it’s even harder for adults,” said Leider. “Periodically, I’d tell them that if they’re struggling and need a little assistance, [the clergy] are here to help.”
After it was all over, Downing said she felt “relief” at what she accomplished.
“It was a capstone,” said Downing, who said she plans to continue studying Hebrew. “It was the signifier of what I’ve learned. It’s a master’s degree in the concepts of Judaism. This was the next step of getting involved in this and understanding a little bit more.”
Temple Rodef Shalom’s six clergy members were present at the services.
“I can speak for myself and the rest of the clergy team: we just couldn’t stop smiling,” Leider said. “It’s just this sense of pride and satisfaction. What an incredible honor to have been a part of their journey.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the program was virtual until the end.
“People ask me what I did during the pandemic for two years,” Pomerantz said. “I tell them I learned to read Hebrew and I had a bat mitzvah.”