Bonnie Panzok is just trying to catch up with her children.
When Panzok sent her kids to Jewish day school to get the education she never got, she watched as their knowledge grew exponentially and surpassed her own. But now, Panzok, after a crash course in Jewish history and rituals, has soared ahead, filling in the gaps in her own Jewish learning.
Panzok is one of 16 women at Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, Queens, ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s, who celebrated their b'not mitzvah this past Shabbat as a culmination of two years of study with Rabbi Albert Thaler, spiritual leader of the egalitarian Conservative synagogue.
“A lot of the women have kids at the Solomon Schechter,” said Morgan Lancman, another participant, referring to the network of Conservative day schools, “and we see that our kids know so much more than us, so this is really a chance to show our children that it is not just about a class and about school — it’s a life.”
Adult bat mitzvah ceremonies have been around for a few decades, as congregations have become more egalitarian in nature and women who previously had no chance to study Judaism embrace it.
According to Rabbi Paul Drazen, of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, these types of ceremonies have been around for at least 20 years. “When I was in the pulpit it was not unusual for a woman who did not either have a full-service bat mitzvah or had no bat mitzvah at all as a youngster, when getting involved with her daughter’s bat mitzvah to decide that this is something she wanted to do.”
Though there are no statistics available for this phenomenon, it is a growing trend as Conservative synagogues are increasingly becoming egalitarian.
In the Reform movement, the majority of congregations are “doing them at least once a year or every other year,” said Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, director of adult learning for the Union for Reform Judaism. “Generally it’s filling the need for women who did not become bat mitzvah as children and they’re looking for ways to enhance their Judaism.” This trend, popularized in Reform and Conservative synagogues in the U.S., is even gaining ground in liberal Israeli temples, she said.
In her contribution to the book “Women Remaking American Judaism,” Lisa Grant, an associate professor of Jewish education at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, states that documentation of the beginning of this trend is scant, but “reports suggest that thousands of American Jewish women have studied for and celebrated their bat mitzvah over the past 30 years.” Grant added that “an estimated 500 synagogues across North America offer adult b’not mitzvah classes.”
The women who took part in the June 14 ceremony come from a variety of backgrounds, and many of them have children going through the bar or bat mitzvah process. Three of the women involved have already had b'not mitzvah, but they were eager to become involved and learn things they hadn’t been able to learn before.
“I always felt that there were gaps in my Jewish education that could be filled,” said Lancman, an Iranian Jew who has lived in the United States since she was 10. Unlike some of the other participants, Lancman was educated in yeshiva day schools, but “this was also my first chance after finishing yeshiva and going out into the real world of learning again.”
The range of backgrounds among the women was wide: Lancman was among the most experienced, while Ellen Wasserman grew up as a “three-times-a-year in temple Jew” and Janine Smestad was among the group’s four converts to Judaism.
Rabbi Thaler has previously led two classes like this, one 20 years ago and one 10 years ago, and was always interested in doing it again. “I would always announce it in shul, but there was never enough interest,” he said. “Then a few people who wanted to do it really took the bull by the horns, and we ended up with a big group.”
The women spent their two years focusing on practical Judaism, studying Jewish history, life cycle events like birth, baby naming, bar/bat mitzvah, marriage and death, as well as the Jewish holidays, Sabbath observance and keeping kosher. A major focus of their studies was also the Jewish prayerbook and Jewish services.
“The idea of actually participating in Shabbat services and not being sort of a bystander was a big attraction for most of the women,” Lancman said.
Nevertheless, “it wasn’t just having the ceremony [that was important],” Lancman said. “It was that the ceremony was the culmination of two years of learning with the rabbi.”
For Wasserman, one of the most important things is “how proud my boys are of me … and it just goes to show that it’s never too late to do something you want.” She, like most of the women, had extended family and friends turn out to celebrate with the women and congratulate their achievements. All the women wanted their children to be there to witness the event.
“Having a child going through the Jewish learning, I realized that it was very important for me to go through that rite of passage,” Smestad remarked.
The group has been meeting once a week for the past two years, and finding the time to do it has always been a challenge. “I have three young kids, most of the women did have young kids, but it was a commitment that everyone was able to keep,” Lancman said.
But that commitment was slightly more challenging for some other members. “A year ago I moved to Maine, so my experience with the second half of the class has been long distance,” said Smestad, who was one of two students who moved away but continued to be a part of the class.
When Smestad, who converted to Judaism in July 2003, relocated with her family to Maine, she was unwilling to give up the class. “All the women have been really helpful, and I got all the information from the rabbi by mail. I phoned into a few classes and lately I’ve been traveling back and forth from Maine to attend the classes … everyone really took the time to bring me up to speed and include me in what was going on … there was a lot of time taken to keep me on the same page.”
The ceremony on June 14 was attended by hundreds of congregants — Smestad flew in with her family — and the participants’ families and friends. A kiddush sponsored by the women and organized by Panzok followed the service. All of the women, two at a time, received aliyot and read a portion of the haftorah. Two of the women gave divrei torah, and Lancman and Smestad spoke on what the program meant to them and the other participants. The three women who had previously had a bat mitzvah were given the chance to read from the Torah itself. During the ceremony, a participant Helene Zipkin from Rabbi Thaler’s first program 21 years ago addressed the group. Zipkin is now the chair of adult learning for the shul.
Looking back these women will remember an important rite of passage as well as fun, laughter and friendship. “We definitely did develop a level of camaraderie and friendship that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Lancman said, and all the women were grateful to Rabbi Thaler for the opportunity and experience.
“[He] has immense patience and a wonderful sense of humor and is an amazing teacher,” said Smestad, and Lancman was quick to praise Rabbi Thaler’s “very special style of teaching — [we had] a lot of laughter, a lot of fun.”
Entertainment was always on the agenda for the rabbi, as he stands firmly by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s words, which all the women were quick to echo: “Only the lesson which is enjoyed can be learned well.”