In most cases, the b’nei mitzvah marks the beginning of adulthood. But not always: On Saturday, May 11, a group ranging in age from 85 to 97 celebrated their b’nei mitzvah at Temple Emanuel in Newton with an audience in the hundreds. Twenty-one were women.
The celebrants live at four 2Life Communities senior housing campuses: Shillman House in Framingham, Coleman House and Golda Meir House in Newton, and at their Brighton location. 2Life’s director of village centers and community engagement, Cindy Katzeff, spearheaded the milestone event, recognizing an unmet need for a generation of older adults who came of age before the ritual was extended to women.
“The excitement was palpable, and the crowd was huge,” Katzeff says.
Sensing a need after a smaller ritual two years ago, Katzeff offered residents of all 2Life campuses the opportunity to celebrate their b’nei mitzvah this year. The response was overwhelming, she says. For the women, many of whom watched their brothers and sons go through the process, it was a chance to embrace and be fully embraced by the Jewish community.
The Stanley and Rita J. Kaplan Foundation enabled the b’nei mitzvah, funding a rabbinic intern at 2Life. This year, rabbinic intern Guilia Fleishman from Hebrew College worked alongside a group of volunteer tutors. Each member of the group has spent two to three hours a week studying, both together and independently, since last September. Many of these longtime neighbors are now friends who continue to study together.
Bonding activities included making a book of blessings for the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Fleishman taught the group how to write a blessing. Each student then wrote one alongside the Havurah from Temple Emanuel, which included a group of younger children with their parents. The blessing book was then delivered to Pittsburgh.
“They were all bright, inquisitive, enjoyed each other and enjoyed listening to each other’s stories of their Jewish journey,” Katzeff says. “In one case, one woman said, ‘My husband passed away last year. I’ve been a caretaker all my life with my children, my own parents, my husband—and I’m incredibly lonely. I didn’t have a social network built yet because I was always taking care of someone. Now I’ve found this wonderful group of ladies that I happen to live with, that I have now become so close to,’” Katzeff says.
One such woman is Sheila Greenfield, 87. Widowed in her 40s, Greenfield moved into the Golda Meir House five-and-a-half years ago. There, she found a protective community.
“I think she’s done more active living since she’s lived here in the last five years than she had in maybe decades prior to moving here. It’s been a blessing beyond description,” says her daughter, Marcie Greenfield Simons. “My mother loved being with the other women in her class. She loved everything that they talked about. There were times that she would feel a little overwhelmed. I think part of that is just the aging process. But with a tiny bit of encouragement, she kept going back week after week. She loved making the tallit, and she studied diligently, wanting to make sure she could recite that bracha.”
“It’s a true dream that I had only hoped to ever happen. And now I am completely knowledgeable of what it truly means to pursue the life of a good Jewish person,” Greenfield says.
At the event, some gave a d’var Torah, a short sermon about the Torah portion for the day. Others read or chanted from the Torah and offered blessings over bread and wine.
Simons says the event was transformative for her mom—and worth waiting for.
“Her reaction was, ‘This is something I’ve wanted my whole life, and now I have achieved it,’” Simons says.