At 94, exercising mind and heart with her own bat mitzvah

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

When Esther Isralow was a 13-year-old helping her widowed mother start a chicken farm in rural Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, the last thing on her mind was a bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony for girls.

"There were no other Jewish people there, and there was no such thing as going to Hebrew school or anything like that at all," she said. "In those days, there was no such thing as girls being bat mitzvahed."

On Saturday, the 94-year-old mother of two stood in a royal blue dress at the front of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda as the oldest congregant to complete 18 months of study that culminated in a b'nai mitzvah -- a collective ceremony of bat and bar mitzvahs -- for 19 adults.

"It is hard to describe the space that this community fills within me," the Chevy Chase resident told about 400 people in the synagogue. "I certainly never expected to be up here."

Over a lifetime, she told them, she has learned that not everyone ends up doing what he or she expects to do. "But if you trust in the Almighty, there is something even greater in store for you."

In 1953, she and her husband moved to the Washington area, where they raised their daughters. She was an active member of her synagogue, present for the important ceremonies that take place throughout the year.

"She's proud of being Jewish," said daughter Sharon Isralow, who attended Saturday's ceremony with her sister. "She's been praying and meditating on the goodness of God her whole life."

But it was only in 2007 that Isralow decided to take the steps toward her own bat mitzvah. She said she got the idea from a TV show.

"They had a series of talks about the brain," she said, "and since I'm an old lady, I'm always scared I'm going to have Alzheimer's or something like that, and the people who knew about the brain said you have to learn things that are difficult, use your mind."

She signed up for art classes and learned to knit. A 95-year-old friend told her about the bat mitzvah course. "I thought, 'Well, I'll try to keep my brain active,' " she said.

The class of 14 women and five men included converts to Judaism and those who had never had the ceremony; a few had done so as children but sought a deeper understanding. Rabbi Greg Harris, who led the class, said women often participate in it because they did not have the opportunity to do so as children. "For many, they grew up at a time when the honor . . . was not extended to them. Only boys had this honor."

Isralow set an example for the other students. "She talks about God with such ease," Harris said.

Classmate April Shan, 37, of Bethesda, agreed. "She was always there on time, she was always the first one," Shan said. "And she was always in a good mood."

"She's an inspiration to me," said congregant Susan Stillman of Potomac, adding that it was especially moving to see Isralow's achievement because "I lost my grandmother in September -- she was 99."

But the process was not easy. In fact, at one point Isralow almost dropped out of the course. She knew the Hebrew words, she said, but she couldn't remember the tune to sing them. Harris persuaded her to stay. On Saturday, the senior member of the class delivered the address.

"I didn't know if I could get through it," Isralow said of the speech.

Afterward, Harris pressed through Isralow's friends, relatives and other well-wishers to deliver this message: "You were wonderful. You did it perfectly."

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