One hails from New York, one from North Carolina and one emigrated from Russia. But three women of a certain age and vastly different backgrounds found a deep connection over the past year studying for and achieving their bat mitzvahs last month at Chabad of Owings Mills.
Karen Terner of Owings Mills, Martha Gross of Reisterstown and Judy Warsaw of Lutherville were all congregants of the Owings Mills shul when one day, Terner asked Chanie Katsenelenbogen, wife of Chabad’s Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, if she might study for the bat mitzvah that she never had as a girl.
“Then she invited Judy and asked Martha to join along as well,” Katsenelenbogen said. “It wasn’t a planned event, it just kind of came about.”
That happenstance brought together three women who grew up in very different circumstances. Terner, 62, grew up in Long Island, N.Y., at a time and a place where it wasn’t common for the religious community to bat mitzvah young girls.
“My brother got bar mitzvahed and I went to Hebrew school, but there wasn’t any formalized recognition [for girls],” she said. “Both of my children were bar and bat mitzvahed.”
Terner said she didn’t know what to expect from the 10-week course but was really engaged by its focus — recognizing a woman’s role in a Jewish household and community as well as the significance of Jewish holidays, challah, Shabbat and “all the things that Jewish women do lovingly and willingly.”
She felt that having the experience as an adult was probably more meaningful than if she had been bat mitzvahed at 12. “It had a lot of significance being an adult and sharing the experience with two of my contemporaries,” Terner said. “It was so much fun and enlightening and really joyous because they were experiencing the same thing as myself.”
Martha Gross, 60, grew up in King’s Mountain, N.C., part of the only Jewish family in town. Because of that, she didn’t want to stand out by going to synagogue, so her folks allowed her to attend the local Baptist church with her friends, as long as she went to her own Sunday school as well.
“I could have had a bat mitzvah, but I chose not to,” she said. “It was something I didn’t want to do because of all of my friends.”
So, when Gross heard there would be a bat mitzvah class at Chabad she happily signed on. She had a lot to learn, she admitted.
“Not only was it fun, I learned so much that I didn’t know about Judaism. Everything was new to me,” she said. “It was thought provoking and opened my eyes even more so to Judaism and what a wonderful religion it is.”
The experience spurred her to continue her studies with Rosh Chodesh and women’s classes. In addition, her studies have brought her closer to her sons.
“For the past year we’ve been studying the prayers, which never meant anything to me, and now we talk about each prayer and discuss them. I just love knowing what each prayer means and what it stands for,” Gross said.
Judy Warsaw, 63, of Lutherville grew up in Russia in a religious home that kept kosher, but where it was uncommon for girls to have a bat mitzvah.
“It was just for the guys, and it was all in hiding. It was not well received by the Russians. So for the girls, forget it,” she said.
When the family moved to Baltimore, she enrolled her children in Jewish schools because she was never able to study as a girl.
“I couldn’t even write in Hebrew or Yiddish,” Warsaw said. “It was important for them to learn the history, to know who they are, and I’m so glad I did. Now whatever they decide to do, at least I gave them something to start with to know who they are.”
Warsaw looks at her bat mitzvah as a way of “passing the baton” of her Jewish family legacy.
“My parents went through Auschwitz, both are Holocaust survivors,” she said. “Most of my family didn’t survive. I never met any of my grandparents, on both sides, they were killed. They tried so hard to keep the Jewish faith and Jewish traditions. So it’s important to pass it along to my children. It was very meaningful to have [the bat mitzvah] at my age.”
For Katsenelenbogen, teaching the women was not just a deep learning experience for her too, but prompted more women to come forward who wanted to study for bat mitzvah.
“It’s never too late to build our relationship with God.” — Chanie Katsenelenbogen
“I now have 10 to 15 women who have expressed interest in studying, and I’m planning a new course starting in November,” she said.
And she encourages any woman who was not able to have a bat mitzvah in their youth to pursue it, because, she said, it’s never too late.
“Whenever we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah we grab that opportunity the moment we can. And if you missed out on something a long time ago, we can look for a way to remedy that,” she said. “As long as we’re still around, as long as we’re still alive, it’s never too late to explore our Judaism, to learn more, to do more. It’s never too late to build our relationship with God.”
For more information on adult bat mitzvah classes, contact Chanie Katsenelenbogen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 410-356-5156.