Rabbi Gordon Freeman wearing the tallit his daughters gave him, which has the names of all his grandchildren on it. He is standing by a painting from The Sh'ma Project, which he and two friends put together.
Rabbi Gordon Freeman wearing the tallit his daughters gave him, which has the names of all his grandchildren on it. He is standing by a painting from The Sh'ma Project, which he and two friends put together.

Why this local rabbi is embracing his 80s with a second bar mitzvah

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On Jan. 1, 2022, the day he turned 82, Gordon Freeman had a sudden realization: Odds were good he’d stay alive for the entire year, and make it to his next birthday on the first day of 2023.

Wasting no time, the rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek set the wheels in motion for his second bar mitzvah — as it’s becoming customary to have such an event at age 83.

So he reserved the date Jan. 7, 2023 at B’nai Shalom and emailed his daughters to “save the date.”

Well, that date occurred last month, and Freeman was in a state of bliss for his coming-of-another-age ritual, “surrounded by my wife, Susan, my four daughters and their families, my grandchildren, an incredibly wonderful community and friends.“

Some equate the bar-mitzvah-at-83 the ritual to renewing one’s wedding vows. Some say it’s an opportunity to “express gratitude” and confirm one’s commitment to Judaism, which is how B’nai Shalom Rabbi Daniel Stein put it.

“It seems to have emerged organically” over the years, Stein said. As for this bar mitzvah, specifically, Stein had only wonderful things to say about Freeman and that he has been “an inspiration to our community in a lot of ways.”

A native of San Francisco, Freeman stepped away from the pulpit in 2006 after 38 years at Contra Costa county’s only Conservative  synagogue.

While he was preparing for his bar mitzvah at 83, “people kept teasing me about making sure I studied,” he said. “The only thing I really had to prepare was the drash. The haftorah I knew well. It took me about five minutes” to review.

His Torah portion, Vayechi from the Book of Genesis, concerned death, blessings and facing the future, whatever it may bring. In shaping his talk, Freeman wanted to convey that “looking at uncertainty, you have to be humble,” yet not feel overwhelmed.

“One of the points I was trying to make by doing this at 83 is that I’m still going and I’m still interested in the future,” he said.

He also wanted to express a sense of optimism, especially to people his age: “I would say embrace joy, look for opportunities for joy. Life is changing constantly. We need to be open, to be creative, and we need to be a model to each other.”

To that end, Freeman and close friends Booker Holton and Hugh Winig collaborated on what Freeman called “The Shema Project” — a combination of art and poetry on display at B’nai Shalom and previously shown at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City.

They trio began work on it three years ago. “The joy was in the process,” said Freeman, who took up Hebrew calligraphy years ago and more recently began writing poems.

He is already working with Holton and Winig on another project: “How to Create a Trusting World Before It’s Too Late.”

Looking back, Freeman recalled that his childhood bar mitzvah at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco was somewhat traumatic.

“I did the service and the Torah reading, and I went to give the talk, which my mother wrote for me, and I began to cry,” he recalled.

He was to speak about his grandfather, with whom he was especially close, and his great-grandfather. His grandfather had recently passed away, and raw emotion rose to the surface.

“I ran off the bimah,” Freeman recalled. But the Beth Sholom rabbi at that time, the late Saul White “comforted me and brought me back” — and Freeman completed his drash.

Another difference between then and now: “I told everybody no presents [this time], because I didn’t want to write thank-you notes,” he joked.

Nonetheless, he appreciated receiving a fountain pen from the synagogue and people giving donations in his honor.

And he cherishes the gift that daughters Sara, Rachel, Elana and Eve presented to him as a surprise during the service: a beautiful tallit from daughters that bears the names of his nine grandchildren.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.