Daviyd Hawkins arrived a bit late, leaning heavily on his cane and whimpering slightly with each step, but insisted that a bout with sciatica could not keep him away from Sunday’s meeting before his adult bar mitzvah at Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark.
“I’m not going to let anything stop me,” he said, making his way up to the bima where his fellow celebrants were rehearsing their upcoming aliyot to the Torah. Hawkins told NJJN he grew up Orthodox in a Sephardic household but left Judaism before bar mitzvah age.
As he got to the bima, where a Torah scroll was open to this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, he wiped away a tear and expressed his gratitude for arriving at this moment in his life, saying, “I’m not going to cry.” A moment later, he broke into a spontaneous recitation of the Shema and the others immediately joined in.
“I can say, that really came from my heart,” Hawkins said of the Shema.
Following a group hug, they continued practicing at the Torah with Rabbi Simon Rosenbach.
They are religious seekers, these “Newark Eight”: the divorcee who moved from Brooklyn, the Soviet émigré newly embracing the Judaism she shunned as a child, two recent converts, a soon-to-be retired probation officer, a suburban retiree, Hawkins, and a few whose journeys began while saying Kaddish for their parents and stayed after the year of mourning had ended.
On March 16, in a culmination of six months of learning, they will celebrate becoming adult b’nei mitzvah together at the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Newark, now affiliated with the Conservative movement.
The last time an adult b’nei mitzvah took place at Ahavas Sholom was in 1999 and included eight 83-year-olds, the traditional age for a second bar mitzvah, adding the years of King David’s life (70) to 13.
Because the community at Ahavas Sholom is small, it took a while to get the class off the ground. On a random Shabbat, there might be anywhere from 12 to 25 worshippers, according to Rosenbach.
Joan Podnos of Livingston, one of the celebrants, first broached the idea with synagogue president Eric Freedman of West Orange “several years ago,” she said. She kept pitching the idea not only to Freedman and Rosenbach, but also to other congregants. “It’s something I always wanted to do, but not alone,” she told NJJN. Slowly but surely, she amassed a large enough group, and the plans moved forward.
Since October they have studied, according to Rosenbach, “tidbits” of Hebrew, a “hodgepodge” of Jewish history, Jewish culture, the liturgy, and the haftorah. Some have studied the Torah reading for March 16. There was, intentionally, no set curriculum beyond understanding the service and having what he called a “rewarding” experience.
“The expectations are defined by every individual member of this class,” said Rosenbach. “You don’t have to set lofty goals; you have to do what you’re comfortable with, and [make sure] it’s meaningful.”
Rosenbach pointed out that, as the celebrants are not 13, they are not participating to please their parents; rather, they are learning for their own fulfillment. “You can get a feeling of achievement, [a] feeling of spiritual satisfaction reading one sentence in the liturgy.” He said his goal was simply helping them engage more deeply with the service and with Judaism.
A bar or bat mitzvah celebrates the occasion of a young person reaching the age of Jewish adulthood — traditionally age 13 for boys and 12 or 13 for girls — and is commonly marked by the honor of receiving an aliyah to the Torah. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as not having a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah; there is only not having celebrated it.
Rabbi Albert Axelrad of Brandeis University Hillel is thought to have led some of the first adult b’nei mitzvah in the 1970s. The custom developed as a way to build community and engagement for people who had not been involved in Judaism in their youth, and then took off when it tapped into the experience of women who grew up before the bat mitzvah was common, according to a working paper on Jewish women written by Beth Cousens for Hadassah International Research Institute. Now adult b’nei mitzvah are a regular feature of local synagogues.
For Tim Bezalel Lee of Newark, who has been a part of the congregation for three years, the adult bar mitzvah was an obvious next step. “I’m always trying to learn,” he said. “You get on the road, then your journey begins. So, I’m beginning the journey.”
Some, like Podnos, are refugees from large suburban congregations where they felt little connection. Others, like Lee, live in Newark and found Ahavas Sholom through a Google search, or because, like Hawkins, they happened to walk by one Shabbat and were drawn in. One participant learned about the synagogue from someone who suggested she might like the congregation while she was taking a Torah class at Seton Hall University.
All were attracted to the warmth of the community. “This is why Ahavas Sholom is family,” said Linda Bloom, the probation officer, who lives in Bloomfield, following the embrace at the bima.
In the process of studying together every other Sunday since October, this group has grown close. “Something happened — I don’t know when — and we’re just all so close and, and care about each other so much,” said Podnos. “So that’s a special bonus.”