At age 83, bat mitzvah came through with flying colors

The bat mitzvah girl looked beautiful in her floral print dress and embroidered tallit. On the bimah, she chanted the Hebrew prayers in a strong, clear voice and brought a measure of holiness into the chapel.

Those in attendance wept with happiness and pride. It didn't matter that the bat mitzvah girl was confined to a wheelchair. It didn't matter that the synagogue was in San Francisco's Jewish Home or that the bat mitzvah girl, Ilse Loewe, is a resident in the assisted-living facility, just shy of her 84th birthday.

This was Ilse Loewe's moment.

The many friends gathered to witness this milestone were only too happy to be there for her.

"Ilse was the volunteer par excellence for every Jewish agency in San Francisco," says Nancy Lipsitz, a care manager for seniors with Jewish Family and Children's Services and Loewe's friend for many years. "She put in incalculable hours."

All that good work came to an abrupt halt about two years ago when Loewe suffered a stroke. It meant the end of her independent lifestyle.

"My right side is paralyzed," she says in her lilting German accent. "But my left leg and foot are not. So my left leg is my driver. I get all over with it!"

Now, she wheels herself around the huge facility, visiting other residents, kibitzing with the staff and being the general pleasure she's always been.

"I can do so many things," she says. "There are so many here worse off than I am. Who am I to complain?"

That glass-is-half-full attitude has helped Loewe rise above the tumult of her early years and build a productive life in the United States.

Born in Germany, she was hired to keep house for a wealthy family when the storm clouds of war began to gather in the late 1930s. While many of her own family members sailed to Shanghai for wartime refuge, Loewe left for Sao Paulo, Brazil, along with the family for whom she worked.

It was no samba in the park for her. "I worked 18 hours a day," she recalls. "They owned a deli while I kept house." Her Brazilian sojourn lasted 13 years.

In 1949, Loewe relocated to Minnesota to start a new life in America. "I went from Sao Paulo to St. Paul," she laughs. "From St. Paul to St. Paul."

In the early 1980s, she moved to the Bay Area to be with the man she loved. Though her husband passed away in 1990, Loewe was by then a die-hard San Franciscan, a veteran of public transportation and a dedicated volunteer in the Jewish community, including the Jewish Bulletin.

One of her favorite places to give her time was the Jewish Home. "I worked there for 12 years," says Loewe. "Then I had a stroke. I'm not angry about it; I just took it in stride. I have a sunny disposition."

Her hospitalization gave Loewe's many friends at the Jewish Home a chance to take care of her just as she had cared for so many. "Ilse was so good to us," notes Lipsitz, "and was such an incredible volunteer for us. We were so gratified that we were able to step in when she was in need."

As "with it" as she is mentally, Loewe's isn't quite as agile physically. In addition to the stroke, she suffers from macular degeneration (a progressive vision impairment) and diabetes.

But none of it was enough to derail her dream of becoming bat mitzvah, even this late in life.

"All my life I wanted to be bat mitzvah, but never made it," she says. "I decided it was now or never. So I talked to the rabbi and a few people, and they said go ahead. I have a basic knowledge of Hebrew, and I figured if I can't read it, I can memorize it."

This spring, when it came time for the big day, scores of friends, colleagues, Jewish Home staff and other big-time Ilse Loewe fans turned out to cheer her on. As Lipsitz recalls, "There was music, singing, clapping and palpable joy at this incredible accomplishment."

"I came through with flying colors," says Loewe with justifiable pride. "I was not nervous, but was in command of myself and knew what I wanted to say. It was wonderful: Everyone came up to me afterwards; it was wall-to-wall people."

Having taken on such an ambitious undertaking, one might expect her to tackle some new goal. But Loewe is not so inclined.

"I'm 84," she says. "How much time do I have? I have no ambitions. But my life is fine. I have a lot of good friends who really come through for me. I'm not complaining."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.