Beth Sholom congregant ascends bimah at age 13 and 20 years later

On Nov. 15, 1980, Stephen Abramowitz became a bar mitzvah at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom. And on Dec. 9, 2000, he became a bar mitzvah at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom — again.

Well, not exactly. When a 33-year-old man who had the traditional rite at age 13 reads from the Torah, it isn't considered a bar mitzvah. But the S.F. native ascended the bimah at the Conservative synagogue anyhow to mark the 20th anniversary of his coming of age, complete with celebratory luncheon afterward.

Adult b'nai mitzvah have become a popular way for those raised with little or no Jewish background to reaffirm their commitment to their faith. Women were the first to have them, but men who had never had the ceremony followed their lead.

But in Abramowitz's case, he was not returning to Judaism at all; he never really left.

College was the only time in his life when he wasn't so involved Jewishly he said. "But as soon as I was out, Beth Sholom was recruiting me to teach religious school, and I became involved again."

In terms of Jewish law, nothing changes after adult b'nai mitzvah.

"While at 13, you are considered an adult by Jewish law, legally nothing changes for you at 33," said Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman, assistant rabbi at Beth Sholom. "It's an act of your commitment and affirming your Jewish commitment as an adult."

Noting that his bar mitzvah portion was Vayetze, which tells the story of Jacob's ladder, Abramowitz said that he saw that ladder as one of Jewish commitment.

And over the years, he has increased his level of Jewish observance.

"First, I gave up shellfish," he said, and then "milk and meat together." Now he keeps a kosher home. And over the years, his involvement in the synagogue has increased. He's been leading an overflow Kol Nidre service for the past seven years.

Using the ladder metaphor, Abramowitz said, "I wasn't starting at the bottom. But my take on Judaism is just because I did it, not everyone is ready to have a first bar mitzvah, let alone a second."

Beth Sholom often allows congregants to give divrai Torah, or read from the Torah, so what Abramowitz did was not that out of the ordinary.

But the amount he took on was. He read a much larger portion than he did on his original bar mitzvah and he also led the Musaf service.

"I had to ask Cantor [Rita] Glassman for permission," he said. "That's her domain."

That Beth Sholom encourages such participation made it possible, he said.

"Subsequent to my doing it, a friend of mine read Torah on his anniversary, and another friend had an aliyah for the first time. I'm not saying I'm the trendsetter, but involvement at Beth Sholom empowers people."

His reasons for his second bar mitzvah were twofold. In addition to the symbolism of celebrating his heightened level of involvement in the Jewish community, he felt he wanted a reason to have a celebration of a Jewish nature.

"It's kind of a hokey thing, but as a 33-year-old single man, I thought to myself that I hadn't had "Siman Tov Mazel Tov" sung for me in 20 years, and that it would be nice to have that opportunity."

So was he nervous? Only in the way that he's always a bit nervous before reading Torah, because "you can't prepare for it the same way twice."

For this ceremony though, he gave himself a much larger Torah portion than a bar mitzvah usually reads. "I never read more than 20 sentences in one session," he said, "and this time I read 40, as much as I'd ever read."

Calling the portion he read the "mambo killer gargantuan King Kong of portions," it took him five to six weeks of preparation. "I wanted to really nail it," he said.

Did he? "I didn't go blank or get stuck, but I had to pause," he said.

Afterward, Abramowitz had a luncheon at a nearby restaurant, Bistro 1650, for about 30 people including his parents, sister and brother-in-law and close friends. He pre-paid for it, so he wouldn't have to use money on Shabbat.

In the latter part of the Torah portion, Abramowitz had noticed his sister making funny hand gestures. He didn't want to break his concentration, so he ignored her. An avid Torah reader herself, she had been making trope signs with her hands in case he got stuck.

Luckily, he didn't need them.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."