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Adults take part in bar, bat mitzvah ceremonies

| Friday, May 4, 2012, 9:37 a.m.

Nina Lewis didn't have a bat mitzvah ceremony as a girl in the 1950s because girls just didn't do that back then.

Myron Lewis didn't have a bar mitzvah ceremony as a boy in the 1930s because the Great Depression robbed his family of the means to continue his Jewish education.

So Nina Lewis -- at age 59 -- and Myron, her father-in-law -- at age 85 -- spent the last six months preparing for a ceremony that usually marks a child's entrance into religious maturity in Judaism.

"I did feel it was missing all my life," said Myron Lewis, who lives near Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I just felt I wasn't a real Jewish person."

The Lewises held a joint b'nai mitzvah ceremony May 13 at Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg.

And, while some congregations in the area hold classes to prepare adults for the ceremony, other local rabbis have never had an adult member go through the process.

The ceremonies typically are held after a girl turns 12 and a boy turns 13, when they are considered adults in the Jewish community. Girls did not commonly mark such ceremonies before the 1970s.

A ceremony is not necessary to be a bar or bat mitzvah, which literally means a son or daughter of the Commandments. But often young people spend an intense period of study learning Hebrew and how to read and chant the Torah in order to lead the congregation in prayer at a ceremony.

Rabbi Sara Perman of Congregation Emanu-El Israel said that before the Lewises, three adult women marked bat mitzvahs at the synagogue.

Perman has seen men of her congregation celebrate the anniversary of their first bar mitzvah and once helped an inmate at SCI-Greensburg celebrate his first bar mitzvah just before he got out of prison.

"Each one -- just like every young person's -- is different," Perman said.

Nina Lewis, who owns a Greensburg insurance agency, said she began thinking about a bat mitzvah last summer. Over the last couple of years, she's been more active with the congregation and is the president of Sisterhood, the women's group.

She began taking Hebrew lessons with Perman and asked if she could do the ceremony she missed out on as a girl growing up near Philadelphia.

"Back then, women were not doing it," she said. "It wasn't thought of."

When her father-in-law heard about it, he asked if he could join in for his bar mitzvah.

Myron Lewis' family moved from New Kensington to Pittsburgh to Library during the Depression. His father lost his business and young Myron could not continue his Jewish education.

He went off to war, married his wife, Betty, had three children and opened Lewis Brothers, a menswear store in Latrobe and Jeannette. He's been retired and living in Florida since 1982.

"I've got the time," Myron Lewis said. "I think it's an important part of my life."

He worked with a rabbi in Florida to learn Hebrew and read the language from the Torah, which does not include any vowels or punctuation.

"At my age it's one thing, but at 85 ..." said Jon Lewis, Myron's son and Nina's husband.

The Lewises aren't alone.

Last month, seven women gathered at the Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside for their ceremonies.

"It was a wonderful experience for them to celebrate something in the past they never could have," said Jeffrey Herzog, executive director of Rodef Shalom.

It was the second time in five years a group of women held a joint ceremony at the congregation.

At 68, Barbara Rogal, of Oakland, was one of the youngest in the group. The oldest woman was 85.

When Rogal was young, nobody in her congregation had a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony because her rabbi believed children were too young to make that commitment.

"A number of us were studying Hebrew elsewhere and one of the women in that class said, 'Have you ever thought about this?' " Rogal said. "Frankly, I had not until she mentioned that."

They studied for more than a year.

"We did a lot of practicing, and it was really a very meaningful experience," Rogal said. "I felt maybe it's more meaningful when you do it when you want to, not because your parents made you."

At Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, an adult b'nai mitzvah service is held every two years. The next group ceremony will be held in June.

"They come to that point in their lives from various directions," said Phyllis Weinkle, executive director of Temple Sinai.

Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill has an adult Torah reading class. Some participants never had a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. Others did but wanted to refresh their knowledge, said Rabbi Stephen Steindel.

"People are taking on the curriculum of a skill they haven't had or haven't used in many years, and are able to use it in the congregation and use it thereafter to their benefit and the benefit of the community," Steindel said.

Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, of Chabad of the South Hills in Scott Township, Allegheny County, said technically, women and men become a bat and bar mitzvah simply by passing those milestone birthdays.

"If it's bringing added spirituality to their lives and it's causing added study, I can't see the harm in it," he said.

Shaare Torah Congregation Rabbi Daniel Wasserman said adult ceremonies are not common in his circles.

"I haven't had much experience with it, but it's a wonderful thing when people later in life, who for whatever reason were not as connected to Judaism, come back to a connection later on," Wasserman said. "There are many, many ways to do that, and one does not necessarily need a ceremony."

Cantor Yaier Lehrer of Adat Shalom in Cheswick said last year two women had their own bat mitzvah ceremonies , and a group did the same two years ago.

Lehrer said he was touched by the Lewises' story.

"It sounds like such a beautiful thing to do together," he said. "I wish them both a big mazel tov."

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