Homeless on the bimah: Five share adult bnai mitzvah ceremony &mdash with a little help

new york city | Sally Lieberman ascended the bimah, a new woolen tallit draped over her shoulders and a lace head-covering perched atop her mop of gray hair.

In the congregation, Lieberman’s estranged brother was about to watch her become a bat mitzvah, decades into an adulthood marked by family strife and homelessness.

On the bimah at New York City’s Congregation Tifereth Israel, also known as the Town and Village Synagogue, Lieberman was joined by two women and two men in becoming b’nai mitzvah. All are clients of Project ORE, a program of New York’s Educational Alliance that aids homeless Jews.

The day before the December ceremony, the group practiced filing onto the bimah and reciting the blessings before the Torah portion. They got a taste for what would come the next day as they were serenaded with a round of “Siman tov u’mazel tov” by Project ORE volunteers and the synagogue’s rabbi and cantor.

Lieberman bounced in time with the music, her turquoise sweater and multicolored scarf reflecting her excitement and pride.

The moment was months in the making.

The adult bat mitzvah of Rosalie Osian, a volunteer with Project ORE’s Shabbat ORE program, in September 2003, set off the chain of events that led to the year-end ceremony.

Several clients of the Shabbat ORE program, which serves sit-down Shabbat meals, were so inspired by the experience Osian described that they wanted to have bar and bat mitzvahs of their own. They volunteered to study with Osian, who was training to be a chaplain, and with volunteer Danny Zalta, for an hour every Friday night for the next 13 weeks.

The group covered basic Jewish concepts, including the blessings over bread and wine. They read Torah stories and reflected on different ways to believe in Judaism. They also learned about Israeli history.

The program was basic but never sugar-coated, according to Osian. “This is a population of people who really have suffered, so the teaching had to be with integrity,” she said.

One challenge was to make the material appeal to all the students. Some had religious backgrounds, while others couldn’t spell their names in Hebrew.

Some participants attend synagogue weekly, others only on High Holy Days and some not at all.

Their reasons for participating varied.

Lieberman wanted to “learn about Judaism.” She attended Hebrew school at the Educational Alliance as a child, but admitted in a speech to the 200-person congregation that “in my life, there wasn’t much Jewishness.”

Marvin, another participant, grew up fairly observant and became a bar mitzvah at age 13, but decided to “renew my faith in God.”

Michael, 28, used the opportunity to learn basic Jewish concepts that he had long been too embarrassed to ask about because he felt he should have known them already.

But Michael’s experience also spoke to the extraordinary hurdles all five of the participants endured — not only to become b’nai mitzvah, but in living as homeless Jews. (Michael, Marvin and some others asked that their full names be withheld.)

“When I was a kid, I knew other children who were Jewish, so I felt — and I don’t want to sound like I feel sorry for myself — that they had something that I didn’t,” said Michael, referring to their b’nai mitzvah.

A bar mitzvah is a “point when you become a man, and it’s a big event and in a selfish way you get lots of presents and lots of money,” he said. “I know I can’t have that, but this is a part that I wanted to at least have. If not, you are never a man at all.”

At different points during the service, the celebrants had opportunities for personal reflection.

As Lieberman donned her tallit, a gift from the Educational Alliance and Project ORE, she said she meditated and tried to clear her head.

“I am angry sometimes. Things don’t work out exactly the way you want them, but you learn to accept things,” she said.

For congregants, the day underscored the faith, and plight, of homeless Jews.

“The main problem is that people don’t think there are Jewish homeless people,” said Michael, who eventually found housing after Project ORE facilitated an introduction to a Brooklyn landlord.

Though Project ORE — which was established by the Educational Alliance in 1986 — serves the homeless, many clients live in shelters, temporary housing or low-income housing.

Homeless statistics are not exact, but Pinchos Kurinsky, Project ORE’s site director, estimates that there are about 2,000 homeless Jews in the New York area. His agency serves 250 individuals a year, 35 to 55 daily. About 35 come to the Shabbat program.

The region’s total homeless population is estimated at 40,000, a number that also includes those living in shelters.

“As a Jewish community, we generally don’t acknowledge that we need to cater to Jewish homeless clients,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, the Educational Alliance’s director of volunteers. “A lot of times, our reputation is that Jews are rich and that Jews don’t have homeless people.”