Bar mitzvah, 93, celebrates return to his Jewish roots

When Andrea Block suffered a series of miscarriages in the 1960s, her mother, Sylvia Penson, promised she would attend Shabbat services every week for the rest of her life if only her daughter could have a child.

After Block did indeed become a parent, Penson dutifully attended services each Friday night. Her husband, Harvey, waited for her outside the synagogue.

"She was the religious one, not me," Harvey Penson said of his wife of nearly 63 years. "I'd rather be on a golf course" than in a synagogue.

But when his beloved wife died last November, Penson found religion. The Philadelphia Geriatric Center resident who refused to attend shul with his wife became a regular at Torah study classes, and he now attends services Friday mornings, afternoons and evenings, not to mention Saturday mornings.

And recently, before more than 100 friends and loved ones in PGC's chapel, 93-year-old Harvey Penson celebrated his bar mitzvah.

"I'm excited," the bar mitzvah boy said. "Who wouldn't be?"

Guests included Block and her husband, David, as well as grandson John Penson and wife Stacy, who flew in from Berkeley.

Also in attendance was U.S. Rep. Jon Fox, who marked the occasion by presenting the guest of honor with a congressional certificate.

Of course, brushes with high-profile people are nothing new for Penson, a former customs broker and foreign-trade consultant by trade whose clients included Queen Elizabeth, Charles Lindbergh, David Rockefeller and Eleanor Roosevelt. His daughter proudly displays a scrapbook of clippings, photographs and letters documenting her father's dealings with the rich and famous.

A New Yorker, Penson retired with his wife to Florida in the 1970s, but as their health declined, Block brought them to the Delaware Valley in 1995.

Penson's newfound commitment to Judaism helped to fill the enormous void created by the passing of his wife.

"There's something about ritual music and prayer that has a powerful impact on the lives of the men and women at [the Philadelphia Geriatric Center]," said Jack Romberg, a rabbinic student and chaplain at the center who officiated at the ceremony.

"On a personal level, this has special meaning for a number of reasons," he continued. "First of all, this is the first bar mitzvah at which I officiated. What's equally important to me is the message that religiosity has no limits."

The messenger made sure he was prepared.

"I studied for this," Penson said. "Hebrew is a hard language, but I enjoyed studying it. I've studied other languages, but this time, it's different. Before this, I never had that feeling that you get from being Jewish."

Penson hesitated. He was searching for the right words.

"You were able to reaffirm your Judaism," his daughter said.

Penson looked at his daughter and smiled.

"Yeah, that's it," he said.