“I didn’t do it when I was 12, so why not now in my 50s,” Giselle Pincever said of the 10-part bat mitzvah study course she will be embarking on in November with at least nine other women at Chabad of Owings Mills.
The course, the second of its kind for adults, had its impetus earlier this year when three women in their 60s studied with Chanie Katsenelenbogen, wife of Chabad’s Rabbi Nochum Katsenelenbogen, and finally had the bat mitzvahs they never had as girls.
From that successful first step, a learning experience for both the students and the teacher, Chanie Katsenelenbogen has designed a new course specifically for women seeking bat mitzvahs later in life.
“Whenever we celebrate bar or bat mitzvahs at Chabad, there are always people, especially women, who lament the fact that they never had the opportunity to have a bat mitzvah when they were young,” Katsenelenbogen said. “I always tell them that a bar or bat mitzvah happens regardless of whether we acknowledge or celebrate it. It’s not a ‘rite of passage.’ We don’t need any special ceremony for a child to become an adult. However, what is important is being able to celebrate our Judaism in a practical and meaningful way — and it’s never too late for that. I’m happy to offer the opportunity for Jewish learning at any point in someone’s life, and we can celebrate the occasion anytime.”
So far, 10 women in their 40s and 50s, including Pincever, have signed up for the course, which runs from Nov. 15 through Jan. 31 and includes discussion topics such as building a relationship with the creator, keeping a kosher home in the modern world and the significance of the special mitzvah of challah.
“This course is more structured and covers a wide range of topics from belief in God, to the role of women in Judaism, to the mitzvah of mikvah, to the beauty of Shabbat and an overview of the Jewish calendar,” Katsenelenbogen added.
Leslie Welfeld became interested in taking the course after hearing that the three women in the shul who had their bat mitzvahs had enjoyed taking the course and deepening their Jewish learning.
“I feel blessed to be able to teach women, who are often older than I am, the beauty of their own heritage that I was privileged to be raised with.” — Chanie Katsenelenbogen
The 48-year-old from Owings Mills wasn’t able to have a bat mitzvah when she was young after her parents divorced. Now, as part of her observant Jewish family, with children who had their bat and bar mitzvahs at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Welfeld is looking forward to “enjoying the learning with some of the great friends I have made at our Chabad.”
“This just completes the circle to me,” she added. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
And although it’s early yet for any set plans for her ceremony or party, Welfeld said she plans a Kiddush sponsorship.
“And I bet my kids will be proud of me,” she said. “That is good enough.”
For Pincever, “studying Judaism never ends.”
“There is no age or time limit. So I said, ‘Why not?’ The bat mitzvah is just an excuse to be with friends and learn together,” she said. “Talking to Chanie, we decided we will dedicate this course to our rabbi’s mom, who passed away just two months ago. She was a courageous woman who grew up in Soviet Russia and never had the opportunity to formally study Judaism, yet she made the effort to learn on her own and managed to raise a wonderfully educated and God- fearing family.”
For Katsenelenbogen, teaching an adult bat mitzvah class has been a joy of sharing and passing on her historical knowledge of Judaism and her experiences of living Judaism.
“I was always taught: ‘If you know alef, you must teach alef.’ You don’t need to know everything before you can teach someone else,” she said. “Every little bit that we were given the opportunity to learn, study, appreciate and internalize can be passed along to another person to benefit from as well. I feel blessed to be able to teach women, who are often older than I am, the beauty of their own heritage that I was privileged to be raised with.”