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First adult bat mitzva at Shore synagogue
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First adult bat mitzva at Shore synagogue

Rabbi Nasanayl Braun, right, congratulated nine adult women congregants who comprised the first-ever bat mitzva class at 119-year-old Congregation Brothers of Israel in Elberon. They are, from left, Madeline Forman, West Long Branch; Marlene Cohn, Oakhurs
Rabbi Nasanayl Braun, right, congratulated nine adult women congregants who comprised the first-ever bat mitzva class at 119-year-old Congregation Brothers of Israel in Elberon. They are, from left, Madeline Forman, West Long Branch; Marlene Cohn, Oakhurs

“What happens to a dream deferred?” For nine women members of Congregation Brothers of Israel, Elberon, there’s an upbeat answer to poet Langston Hughes’ downbeat question: It may be fulfilled.

The women, ranging in age from their late-50s to mid-90s, formed the first adult bat mitzva class in the history of the 119-year-old Modern Orthodox synagogue. On May 3, they celebrated their achievement at a special service, followed by a party with what one of them described as “a lot of good food.”

Madeline Forman of West Long Branch, one of the bat mitzva “girls” and the head of the shul’s senior citizen group Club L’Chaim, which sponsored the festivities, estimated the turnout at more than 130 people, including congregants and guests.

Ruth Hyman, 95, of Long Branch, the oldest of the participants, said she had more than a dozen close friends in attendance. “They were all so proud of me,” she said.

The women studied for a year with Rabbi Nasanayl Braun in order to prepare for the bat mitzva ceremony. 

“I consulted calendars and determined the parsha [weekly Torah portion] that each would have had if she had been able to celebrate at age 12,” he told NJJN in a phone interview. “One by one, we worked on all of the portions. Each woman was responsible for understanding the message of her particular section. On May 3, the celebrants gave speeches discussing what they had learned in Torah study and also gave insights into what being Jewish means to them.”

There was a lot of focus on the importance of giving. “When a girl is 12, we are hoping to inspire her, but these mature women have long histories of commitment to the Jewish community,” he said. “In their speeches there was a tone of affirmation about the things they have already done and will continue to do.”

Roz Fisher of West Long Branch was raised in an Orthodox shul in Lynn, Mass. “I always felt a little slighted when I saw a friend who belonged to the Conservative synagogue being recognized as a bat mitzva,” she said. What made it worse, she added, was that all the kids — Orthodox and Conservative — attended the same Hebrew school; there was only one in town.

“I’m particularly happy about this for two special reasons,” Fisher said. “One, I learned more about Torah in the classes than I ever could have without them. Two, becoming a bat mitzva enabled me to set an example for my five granddaughters. This is one way to prove to them that I’m serious about my Judaism.”

Fisher and others closely involved in the adult bat mitzva program reserved special praise for Forman. “She got the ball rolling. It was her idea, and everyone — the women, the rabbi, and the congregation — gave us lots of support,” she said.

“What I liked best about becoming a bat mitzva were the classes with the rabbi and all the women,” said Marlene Cohn of Oakhurst. “We became very close.”

Cohn said she never expected anything like this to be available to her. “I watched my two older brothers pursuing a bar mitzva track, but I understood that it was something girls didn’t do. Later, when my own children went to yeshiva, I learned a lot by looking over their shoulders. And when the adult bat mitzva class was offered, I was eager to be part of it. What made it even better was that one of my brothers was there on May 3 and celebrated with me.”

At 95, it would have been hard for Hyman not to steal the show. Well known for her charitable activities, she also displayed a sense of humor during her speech. “I’ve waited more than 80 years for this day,” she said. “Well, better late than never.”

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