It’s never too late.
Ten women residents of the Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Commack celebrated their bat mitzvah last month with speeches and food. They ranged in age from 79 to 97.
“Thank God I lived to celebrate my bat mitzvah at age 97,” Harriet Fass told Rabbi Zev Schostak, the center’s director of pastoral care, who presided over the 90-minute event in the main activities center.
Another resident, Molly Feibush, also 97, told the rabbi about the “holy people” she remembered from her childhood in her native Poland. And she recalled that her mother created a shtieble or little synagogue in a large room of their country home.
Feibush came to the United States in 1929. Her father, brother and sister followed three years later, but Rabbi Schostak said her mother and two younger siblings never made it out off Europe and were murdered by the Nazis.
Ruth Baylis, 79, told the guests that when they were all 12 years old, “our parents didn’t make a bat mitzvah celebration; many of us didn’t even have the privilege of a basic Jewish education. Back then it was mostly boys who went to cheder [religious school]. Today, thank God, in Gurwin we now have the opportunity to learn about our Yiddishkeit.”
Rabbi Schostak said that for the past year the women attended classes twice a month in an informal setting that exposed them to Jewish history, customs, ceremonies and culture.
“They talked about how life used to be while growing up, the holidays and recipes for the holidays,” he said. “It was experiential. All of our residents are exposed to the lifecycle events. We have a sukkah and a seder — so many things that they may not have had as children. Many grew up in observant homes, but it was the boy who had the bar mitzvah. There was nothing formal marking their coming of age in mitzvot.”
During the bat mitzvah celebration, resident Frieda Kaplan, 89, spoke of the moments in her life that made her proud to be a Jew. Among them, she said was the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
“I remember the joy we shared with Jews the world over when the United Nations voted on the petition of the State of Israel that May. … There was excitement and dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv. Forty years later, in 1988, I visited Israel and toured the country. I vividly recall visiting the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
“I was born three day before Yom Kippur, a very emotional time of the year on the Jewish calendar. I recall being very moved by the High Holy Day services, especially the Kol Nidre prayers, which I attended with my family at the Brooklyn Jewish Center. I must confess to you, though, that the Yom Kippur fast day is not my favorite Jewish holiday. Passover is, especially the seder, where our entire family would gather and celebrate.”
Joining the rabbi as the actual teacher of the class was Judith Kahn, 77, a Gurwin resident who was the former director of the Board of Jewish Education in Cherry Hill, N.J., and a graduate of Yeshiva of Flatbush and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
And sitting in on the classes was Karen Nash, Gurwin’s director of therapeutic education recreation, who said she also never had a formal Jewish education.
“I brought the patients to the class and became enthralled with the lectures,” she said. “I learned what I never knew before about biblical history and culture. Each lesson was geared to whatever was happening in the world. And she incorporated residents’ memories of how they celebrated the holidays as children and parents.”
“[Kahn] used to teach Jewish education, and we gave her the opportunity to continue her lifelong passion,” Nash added.
Rabbi Schostak said the bat mitzvah program “generated such excitement” that other residents are interested in joining. And Nash said she plans to continue attending as well.
“Men and some non-Jewish people are also interested,” she said. “We’re like one big family here. Just because you become a resident here does not mean you have to stop living your dream or your passion.”