Religion

Non-Traditional Students Celebrate B'not Mitzvah

LEXINGTON, Ky. —It was a traditional rite of Jewish passage with a twist.

Instead of the more widely known bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah rituals in which 13-year-olds enter more fully into the religious community, a group of nine Lexington, Ky., women ranging in ag e from their 40s to their 70s recently celebrated their b'not mitzvah during a ceremony at Temple Adath Israel.

"It was a beautiful experience," said Karen Petrone, 46, who converted to Judaism as an adult.

"Here are nine ladies who have always wanted to dive into their tradition but they have found it together," said Rabbi Marc Kline, who taught the weekly, yearlong lessons that delved into t he faith's history, traditions and ethics, and included the study of Hebrew.

Kline said adult b'not or b'nai mitzvah classes are held periodically at temples. This is the first time he has offered the class in Lexington, although Temple Adath Israel has done it prev iously. What's more, this class was a little more unusual because only women signed up to participate. (B'not mitzvah is the plural of bat mitzvah and means that a group of girls or women is going through the rite. When more than one boy or a boy and a girl go through the ritual, it's called b'nai mitzvah.)

Petrone said making the commitment to be a part of the b'not mitzvah group forced her to make time for herself and her studies away from caring for her two daughters and working as a histor y professor at the University of Kentucky. It was time, she said, that was difficult to find but well worth the sacrifice.

The ceremony was April 15, but for many, it was years in the making.

"I have thought about it over time," another member of the group, Ruth Poley, said. "It never felt the time was right." But this time, she said, "at some basic gut level, it felt like it wa s the right time for me to do it."

Most teenage girls have a bat mitzvah these days, but when Poley, 74, was young, the ceremony was rarely available to women.

Kline said the first American bat mitzvah was conducted in the 1930s. In some conservative Jewish congregations, women are not allowed to read from the Torah, a central and moving part of t he ceremony.

Every temple has a set of Torah scrolls featuring the five books of Moses used in Sabbath services. The text is written on parchment and is not to be touched by the human hand. Instead, a p ointer, called a yad, is used to follow the words.

"You just stand in awe," Pat Shraberg said. "It's so old, there's such a tradition. I have a lot of respect for that."

But not without challenges, no matter how well-prepared. For one thing the Hebrew in the Torah is without vowels and can be challenging to follow in the best of circumstances. For Shraberg, it was a bit more difficult. "The woman before me took the yad," she said.

Learning more about their religion was an important part of the b'not mitzvah process, but Poley said the women also learned a lot about themselves.

As is custom, they had a service project: They chose to tutor women in the Fayette County Detention Center who are working to get their GEDs.

Going into the jail was, Poley said, "way out of our comfort zone."

But during their weekly visits they came to see how their help was making a difference, hopefully helping the incarcerated women to set a different path for their lives.

"We had no idea what to expect," said Jane Chaput, one of the b'not mitzvah group. "They are just lovely women and very appreciative of everything that we did. It's nice to know that maybe we are helping these women get better lives once they are released."

Several members of the group plan to continue their volunteer work, Poley said.

Kline said the women made an impact on him and others at the temple.

"Getting to know these ladies, they are such incredible individuals," he said. "The power of what they brought to study, to worship, to the engagement at the jail" was impressive.

"The whole year I walked in (to the weekly class) to smiles," he said. "They challenged me, they pushed me, they loved me."

And, he said, they made an impression on others. In his bar mitzvah sermon, a young man at Adath Israel made a point to refer to the women's service project as an example of how a simple ac t can make a difference in the world.

Shraberg, who started studying Judaism in 1979 and formally converted 14 years ago, is glad she made the decision to take part in the b'not mitzvah ritual. She values the friendships she's made and the example she hopes the group has set for service.

"When it comes back to you that you've set a possible example," she said, "oh, my goodness, it has a lot of meaning."

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