With a fringed prayer shawl draped over his shoulders and an embroidered skullup pinned to his graying hair, Charles Hoffman wheeled himself to the front of a Rockville synagogue last Saturday. Leaning toward the open Torah scrolls, he solemly recited the ancient blessings that have been chanted by generations of Bar Mitzvah celebrants.

The rite is centuries old. But this ceremony was one of a kind.

According to Jewish tradition, a Bar Mitzvah marks a boy's passage to manhood at the age of 13. For 38-year-old Hoffman of Silver Spring, the ritual went one step further: It symbolized a man's journey to dignity and independence.

Hoffman, who is mentally retarded and physically handicapped, spent almost 20 years as a patient at St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital.

"This is really a triumph of the spirit," marveled Rabbi Joseph Levine, a chaplain at St. Elizabeths. Levine nurtured Hoffman's religious identity at the hospital; Saturday he was one of 100 guests who proudly watched the ceremony at B'nai Israel Congregation.

Hoffman's story is in turn tragic and heartwarming. Confined to a wheelchair since a bout with polio as a child, Hoffman also suffers from cerebral palsy, mild retardation and emotional problems, according to Barbara Gottschalk, a social worker with the Jewish Social Service Agency, who was instrumental in getting Hoffman released from St. Elizabeths.

When Hoffman was 17, his parents placed him in St. Elizabeths because they could not handle his temper tantrums and adolescent rebellion, Gottschalk said. For 20 years he languished on a ward for elderly patients, with authorities "constantly evaluating him, but never treating him," she said.

Through those years, though, Hoffman was determined to observe his religion. Every Friday, regardless of the weather, he wheeled himself a quarter-mile to the hospital's synagogue, hoisted himself out of the wheelchair and then slid down two flights of stairs to attend Sabbath services, Levine said.

After getting to know Hoffman, Levine contacted the Jewish Social Service Agency in Rockville to ask a volunteer to bring Hoffman to the agency's programs for disabled adults. That's when Gottschalk first met Hoffman.

"I could see he had a lot of spunk and that always impresses me," she said. "He kept his dignity, he kept his strength, he kept his will to go on through this whole thing."

Gottschalk decided Hoffman needed more than weekly outings. He needed to get out for good, she said, because his primary diagnosis was mental retardation, not mental illness. After Gottschalk and other advocates proved Hoffman was improperly placed in the psychiatric institution, he was discharged last March.

After his release, Hoffman moved into a Silver Spring group home operated by the Montgomery County Association for Retarded Citizens. Living with three other retarded adults and two counselors in a quiet suburban neighborhood, Hoffman is learning to do his own cooking, laundry and shopping. He works at a sheltered workshop, where he receives vocational training in manual skills.

The Bar Mitzvah idea started just before Hoffman's release from St. Elizabeths, Gottschalk said. Recalling his older brother's Bar Mitzvah more than 25 years ago, Hoffman said he wanted one too. Gottschalk promised to find a volunteer to train him and she soon recruited Theodore Rosenberg of Bethesda for the job.

Twice a week for the past six months, Rosenberg tutored Hoffman in the English transliteration of Hebrew blessings before and after the reading of the Torah. And on the appointed day, Hoffman flawlessly read the prayers from a spiral notebook, surrounded by his beaming parents and friends.

Hoffman's parents, in their early 70s and residents of north Bethesda, said they never knew their son wanted a Bar Mitzvah until he announced his intentions less than a year ago.

"I'm thrilled," said his mother, Barbara Hoffman. "I never thought I'd live to see this happen."

She wasn't the only one moved by her son's accomplishment. In the traditional Bar Mitzvah speech, the normally garrulous Hoffman had only this to say: "It's been a thrilling day for me. It's been a very beautiful day and I'll remember it always."