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In their 80s and 90s, three Jewish women finally become bat mitzvahs

Charlotte Gottlieb, 93, reads from the Torah during her bat mitzvah ceremony at the Five Star Residences in Chevy Chase on Saturday. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Charlotte Gottlieb’s hand trembled as she approached the Torah and picked up the pointer, prepared to read aloud from the sacred scroll before her congregation for the first time. She had practiced the Hebrew words for months and had waited to celebrate her bat mitzvah her entire life.

Not just 13 years, like most Jewish children. Ninety-three years.

For Gottlieb and the two other elderly women who shared a bat mitzvah service in Chevy Chase, Md., on Saturday morning, the religious milestone was not a coming-of-age ceremony, the typical purpose of a bat mitzvah. It was a capstone — the fulfillment of a lifelong commitment to Judaism.

Charlotte Markowitz, 85, Sy Laufe, 90, and Gottlieb came of age before Jews extended the tradition of a Torah service to mark the beginning of religious adulthood to girls as well as boys. When these women were adolescents, the idea of celebrating their bat mitzvahs was unimaginable.

Instead, they watched their brothers’ services. When they became Jewish mothers — synagogue volunteers, keepers of kosher kitchens, hosts of every holiday — they watched their children’s and grandchildren’s bar and bat mitzvah services.

On Saturday, it was their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren — gathered from across the country — watching the three of them as they proudly read aloud from the Torah at last.

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“Now, today, I join my family in becoming a daughter of the Commandments,” Markowitz said in her speech during the service.

“Every time I have attended a bar or bat mitzvah service, I have had the yearning for the same experience,” Gottlieb said. “The feeling that something was missing from my life was with me.”

The prayer service on Saturday in which the three women spoke and read from the Torah scroll for the first time was deeply bittersweet. There were supposed to be four bat mitzvahs, not three, celebrated at the Five Star retirement home in Chevy Chase.

The idea for a group bat mitzvah for women who could not have one as youths originated with Barbara Solan. Solan put together the foursome, helped hire a cantor to prepare them and studied Hebrew diligently for months. Two weeks before the ceremony, she died unexpectedly at age 87.

Solan’s daughters, who read their mother’s prepared remarks in her place at the service, said that they buried her in the prayer shawl that they had purchased for her to wear at the bat mitzvah. Traditionally only men are buried in the tallis — another barrier that Solan broke.

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In the final months of Solan’s life, preparing for her bat mitzvah was an all-consuming task. Cantor Susan Berkson said that the four women all treated their studies like a full-time job. “They’re working eight hours a day on it. Really, it’s like a yeshiva bocher,” she joked at one of their weekly classes, using a term for a student in an Orthodox Jewish school.

At the outset, Berkson told them that it would take two years to learn everything they needed to know — the basics of the Hebrew alphabet, all of the prayers in the Shabbat service and the special melody for chanting from the Torah.

“At our age, we don’t know if we have two years,” Markowitz said. They set a date just eight months away and got to work.

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Their classes resembled those of any cantor preparing a bunch of bat mitzvah students in any synagogue. Berkson corrected wayward vowels, chided students who forgot to bring their prayer books and praised their progress.

But then again, these classes were different. “My medication is driving me crazy,” Laufe complained during class one day. “Join the club,” Markowitz said wryly.

Laufe once sat down for class and promptly realized something was wrong. “Oh, I forgot my hearing aids,” she said.

And these bat mitzvah students found the opportunity to read from the Torah, which is the privilege that the bat mitzvah ceremony confers on a newly minted Jewish adult, far more meaningful than many 13-year-olds might be capable of perceiving.

“It means an unfolding of something I’ve wanted to do all my life,” Markowitz said.

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The first bat mitzvah for a girl in America was in 1922, for Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan who founded the Reconstructionist denomination. But the coming-of-age ceremony didn’t extend to girls in most synagogues for decades more. The Jewish Women’s Archive reports that 35 percent of synagogues in the Reform movement, the most liberal denomination, offered bat mitzvahs by 1953.

It took until the 1970s and 1980s for the bat mitzvah to become a common offering for girls. The most traditional Orthodox synagogues still do not allow girls to read from the Torah.

The women in the Chevy Chase class covered the entire spectrum of Jewish experience in the United States over the past century. Gottlieb and Markowitz grew up in Orthodox synagogues where women were strictly separated from men and were never allowed to read from the Torah.

Laufe grew up at Rodef Shalom, the historic temple where the Pittsburgh Platform — the document that laid out the groundbreaking format of Reform Judaism in 1885 — was drafted. In the early, innovative decades of classical Reform practice, all sorts of traditions fell by the wayside. No one in Laufe’s childhood congregation had bar or bat mitzvahs — boys or girls.

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Even when these four women’s daughters reached bat mitzvah age, women were not fully included in Judaism.

Gottlieb’s daughters had some of the first bat mitzvahs in their Conservative temple, in 1960 and 1963, she said. Markowitz’s two daughters had bat mitzvahs at the synagogue that Markowitz helped found, where she ran the Sunday school designed to give girls and boys a strong Jewish education.

But Laufe’s daughter did not have a bat mitzvah — until she decided to have hers alongside her own daughter.

Solan’s two daughters also did not have the chance. And their mother was always keenly aware of unfairness toward women, especially in the religion she loved, they said on Saturday when they spoke at what was supposed to be their mother’s bat mitvah ceremony.

Before her death, Solan had wanted to do two things, her daughters said: celebrate her bat mitzvah and cast a vote for the first female president.

Speaking to a reporter in April when the bat mitzvah service was still a month away, Solan said she came up with the idea of an adult bat mitzvah for women of her generation after many conversations with her peers. “I met all these women who seemed to have been deprived of having a bat mitzvah,” she said. “I don’t want to be left out of anything.”

Gottlieb, Laufe, Markowitz and Solan had gathered at their retirement home, practicing Hebrew songs that they had waited their entire lives to sing as bat mitzvahs.

Each of their Jewish experiences had brought them there. Soon, it would bring them to the Torah at last, even if they had to approach the scroll with their walkers — or in Solan’s case, only in spirit.

That day in April, Solan looked around the table approvingly. “We’ve come a long way,” she said.

This post has been updated.

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