As Natalie Fishman approached the age of 30, the superficiality of her Jewish identity began troubling her. She wanted her children to be good practicing Jews but she felt inadequate to teach them how.
She had grown up in a non-practicing Jewish home and "discovered that the things I was trying to teach my children were foreign to me and didn't come naturally," the Potomac mother of three said.
One of the things she had missed was the bar mitzvah - the passage of a Jewish woman into spiritual adulthood: a ritual preceded by years of formal religious study of Judaism and Hebrew.
Friday night, as the Jewish sabbath began, Fishman and six other women in their 30s, 40s and 50s were formally bar mitzvahed at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac. They are among a growing number of adult Jewish women who are rediscovering part of their heritage they missed at age 13, the traditional age of bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls.
"Did you ever have the feeling of: this is just what I'm looking for?" said Fishman, whose children are 7, 5 and 2.
Fishman learned about an unusual women's bat mitzvah class planned by the synagogue's Sisterhood and joined 18 months ago even though she was not a member of the congregation at the time. No one in the class initially considered the possibility that the intensive studies might lead to the actual bat mitzvah ceremony, the traditional rite that acknowledges their obligation to follow Hebrew practice.
The seven women entered the classes for a variety of specific personal reasons. The one common thread for all, however, was a need to show their children how to live a Jewish life in the face of so many alternatives: alternatives as diverse and strange as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, which two of the women mentioned and as pervasive as ordinary secularism.
"We all feel the pull of secular society and it's not easy to say no to the secular demands on our children," said Myrna Goldenberg, 40, who has three children from 13 to 10.
"By this (bar mitzvah) we expect of ourselves what we expect of our children," she added. "And something I did not anticipate was a wonderful sense of my kids being proud of me when I walked back from reading the Torah."
"There is a searching for values in all of us now, after the '60s when we went into a tailspin. I see this in my students," said Goldenberg, who teaches English and philosophy at Montgomery College. "We also have lost a sense of roots, and your religion ties you to your past and your future."
Eleanor Stone, 45, felt that way when her adopted son, Harry, arrived. Reared Orthodox with lots of Jewish education, she nevertheless felt inadequate to prepare him religiously. "The first thing my husband (Herbert) and I did when he arrived was to join the synagogue," she said.
"I was pushed into my religion. I had to go to Hebrew school, to stay out of school on Jewish holidays, to keep a kosher home. But no one ever told me why. I rebelled inside. I wasn't really Orthodox," she conceded.
"I would say what is happening here is not an exception because there are so many people who have a tremendous interest in their religion now who didn't before," Stone said. "Maybe it is in opposition to all the kids who are giving up theirs. I think it happens with men, too. As we get older, we have the feeling that if we can share our religion with our children, that maybe we won't lose them. There's a tremendous fear of that today."
The bat mitzvah course began with close to two-dozen women. The others who completed the class were Golda Schwartz, Tobe Friedberg, Jeanette Litman and Judy Stein. They spent 18 months in preparation for the ceremony Friday and devoted one night a week to synagogue lectures and an additional half-dozen hours of study at home.
While formal bar and bat mitzvahs are not required to confer the duties of Jewish adulthood on members, these women chose the ceremony as a means of publicly expressing their newly gained status.
At Har Shalom, a conservative congregation with many young families, women share equal rights with men in worship as they do in reform and an increasing number of conservative temples. The equality at Har Shalom stretches to the point that men work in the kitchen at times.
Some of these women come from orthodox backgrounds in which women are relegated to the periphery in worship. Litman, for example, remembered how her mother had to sit in the balcony and watch the men perform the ritual.
Litman was drawn deeper into synagogue life by her youngest daughter's bat mitzvah six years ago.Now she feels that her own bat mitzvah has been an inspiration to other women.
"Some of them came up to me after the service with tears in their eyes," she said. "I just had the feeling that if my parents were living they would be so proud."