Bnai mitzvah students prove that its never too late

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The seven b'nai mitzvah celebrants were poised and ready. They had been rehearsing for weeks, and now it was time for them to lead their families and friends in a Rosh Chodesh service few will ever forget. Their accomplishment was all the more remarkable because they ranged in age from 69 to 81, and five came to this country from the former Soviet Union less than 10 years ago.

English as a second language classes at Shalom Tower, the apartment building where they all live, helped them to learn the basics, but introducing Hebrew into the mix added yet another complication to their lives. They eagerly accepted the challenge; however, and happily anticipated the March 25 ceremony that would confirm their faith. The coming-of-age event garnered a two-page article in the Louisville Courier-Journal that helped to attract a standing-room-only crowd.

Tears mingled with joy as Roza Charnaya, Leila Ginsberg, Perlya Khait, Felix Lyalin, Lori Marx, Lena Kumok and Shifra Vaserman reaffirmed their personal commitment to Judaism in a public way. Lyalin, 74, who has lived in Louisville since 1994, acted as interpreter for the group throughout the weeks of study and preparation. He delivered an inspiring message about his pride at "becoming a real Jew and being with my people."

Ruth Greenberg, whose 81-year-old mother, Lori Marx, came to New York City after fleeing with her family from Nazi Germany in 1937, was thrilled that her mother was able to take part in the festivities.

"This event has given her the opportunity to reaffirm publicly one of the foundations in her life — Judaism," she said. "Since women in her day did not take an active role in leading a service, the bat mitzvah provided her with her first opportunity to participate."

She and the other women in the group experienced a culture shock of sorts when Ann Huttner, a volunteer who helped at rehearsals and chanted the Torah reading, asked if they wanted to wear tallitot. Marx commented that she had never worn one before; her mother taught her that "it was a man's thing." When Huttner explained that the tallit created "a sacred space in which to pray," the women all agreed.

The service took about 45 minutes, and at times the urge to applaud could barely be suppressed.

"I am so proud of her," said Edward Ginsberg of his mother, Leila, 71, the only American-born member of the group. "It's a gutsy thing to do."

Religion has always been important to Leila Ginsberg, who grew up in a strictly observant home but never learned about Judaism in depth. Preparing for her bat mitzvah, she said, meant everything to her.

"People of any age can make a commitment to Judaism," Rabbi Laura Metzger, who taught the students about Jewish laws and rituals. The group was so eager and interested in learning about their heritage that she hopes they will continue with their education.

Edith Kling, president of the Shalom Tower board, praised the students for their "courage to be beginners in undertaking this challenging course of study." She noted that their Torah portion talked about the new moon and preparations for the sacrifice. "The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban," she explained, "and these seven certainly did that as they gave considerable time and energy to this undertaking."

Alan Engel, the executive director of the Louisville Jewish Community Federation, had the last aliyah.

"As a community," he said, "we made the commitment in 1990 to integrate even more Jews from the former Soviet Union into our community. They now account for 10 percent of our local Jewish population. The activity today is the ultimate; it symbolizes what our efforts on their behalf are all about."

In his closing benediction, Rabbi Shmuel Mann said: "We put so much time and energy into our children's education that we must remember not to exclude our seniors in this regard. You are never too old to grow in Judaism and it is never too late to study."

To that all those present said amen.