Former S.F. reporter is having a blog mitzvah

When practicing trope gets her down, Ilana DeBare has a mantra that motivates her to dive into even the most daunting of her bat mitzvah studies.

“Twelve-year-olds are doing this every day. My 12-year-old did it,” she says to herself. “So chill out and do it.”

So DeBare wrote on her blog for her Jan. 17 entry. The Oakland woman, 52, started the online journal when she began studying in October for what she has dubbed her “midlife bat mitzvah.” That is also the title of her blog: midlifebatmitzvah.wordpress.com.

Her thoughts range from the mundane (such as the roots of Hebrew words or the latest novel she read) to the profound  (such as ruminations on God, the afterlife and the Sabbath).

“I think things through much better by writing than by talking,” said DeBare, whose bat mitzvah is scheduled for February 2011 at Temple Sinai in Oakland. “I knew the blog would help me think about the bat mitzvah process in a deeper manner.”

Her readers include at least two Episcopal ministers and a lapsed Muslim, not to mention relatives, friends, friends of friends and former co-workers from her days as a San Francisco Chronicle business reporter.

“Readers’ comments have been wonderful — which is so different from SFGate.com,” she said. “Seeing how mean-spirited people were about stories I wrote was one of the most demoralizing parts of being a reporter there. In contrast, comments on my blog are heartfelt and thoughtful.”

As far as she knows, she’s the only 50-something woman studying for her bat mitzvah who’s chronicling the journey in an online diary.

She writes on her blog at least once a week from her desktop computer in her sunny upstairs office. Once she had a guest blogger, her husband, who wrote an entry about his thoughts on keeping Shabbat.

DeBare has lived in the Bay Area since 1980, when she began attending U.C. Berkeley’s School of Journalism. She has worked for the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle, where she took a buyout in 2008.

In 1999, when her daughter was 6, DeBare helped found the Julia Morgan School for Girls in Oakland; the experience inspired her to write a history of all-girls’ schools, “Where Girls Come First.”

DeBare grew up in New York City with “fairly assimilated” parents who celebrated Jewish holidays but also had a Christmas tree. As a teenager, she became active in Hashomer Hatzair, a Progressive Zionist youth movement

Ilana DeBare works on her “Midlife Bat Mitzvah” blog in the upstairs office of her Oakland home.

After graduating from Harvard University, DeBare moved to Israel in 1984. She lived there for 18 months and worked as a freelance writer, returning to the United States with a strong commitment to contribute to an active Jewish community.

“I could not accept [the Zionist argument] that there was no future for the Jewish diaspora,” she said.

For the past 10 years, she has thought about having an adult bat mitzvah — something she was never interested in at 13 because her family did not belong to a synagogue — but always imagined she’d do it after she retired.

Then she realized she had enough time to do it now.

“I wanted to pursue a dream now rather than wait to pursue it, because some day doesn’t necessarily always come,” she said.

DeBare approached Sinai Rabbi Steven Chester about studying for her bat mitzvah. He was enthusiastic about her interest, but the coursework would be quite different from that of a 12-year-old.

“He told me, ‘Tell me what you want to learn and we’ll talk about it,’ ” DeBare recalled. “It’s really cool but I feel pressure to come up with good topics.”

She decided to learn about the Jewish concept of God in the afterlife, prophets, archeological historical perspective on the Bible and the meaning behind Shabbat services (why the service is structured the way it is and what that means).

He gave her a reading list.

She has read two items so far. Next up: “Who Wrote the Bible” by Richard Elliott Friedman.

DeBare has met twice a month for the past five months with Chester and with Sinai’s cantor, Ilene Keys. She has uploaded to her iPod the cantor’s renditions of various prayers and she listens to them while on the treadmill at the gym.

She also attends a weekly prayerbook Hebrew class and last month she began meeting with four other adult b’nai mitzvah students. Her Torah portion is Vayakhel, which is when Moses tells the Israelites how to build the ark.

The experience has given her a new perspective on her own daughter’s bat mitzvah, which happened three years ago.

“I don’t think I appreciated how much work a bat mitzvah is,” DeBare said. ­

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.