I had an extraordinary experience this past weekend. I had the privilege of watching my dearest friend celebrate her Bat Mitzvah. As a child, she did not have the opportunity to have a Bat Mitzvah and it has been a goal of hers for a very long time, often in the back of her mind but never forgotten. Watching her beaming as she completed this goal was both moving and inspirational and I was so happy to be able to share the moment with her and with her family.
Participating in this B’nai Mitzvah ceremony were eleven other individuals, one of whom was happy to tell the large congregational gathering that he had turned 83 this past January and was marking his second Bar Mitzvah. The custom of a second Bar Mitzvah is based on Psalm 90:10, which says that 70 years is the expected lifespan of most people. Reaching age 70, then, can be considered a new start, making age 83 the equivalent of reaching Bar Mitzvah age again. While I am not sure that 83 is the new 13, it was wonderful to watch!
Each of the adults participating in this beautiful ceremony spoke eloquently and from the heart about why they chose to spend two years preparing for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For some, it was creating continuity for a family largely destroyed in the Holocaust, for others it was something they had refused as a child and regretted. And for still others, it just had not existed as an opportunity when they were younger.
It is no easy feat to learn Hebrew as an adult. It’s not that easy as a child when learning comes more easily! Yet each of these people chanted or read both Torah and Haftorah and participated in all of the prayers, demonstrating the breadth of their learning. Each of them looked happy and proud, each acknowledged both the hard work and the support that it took to get to that day.
What struck me when thinking about the event afterwards was the fact that earlier that same week I had extensive conversations with some of my professional colleagues about ageism. We talked about the fact that our society tends to focus on youth and “count people out” once they have reached a certain age. We minimize their abilities, focus on their deficits and forget that people are capable of creating and achieving goals at any age or stage. We talked about the fact that ageism is the last “ism” left, a lingering and palpable discrimination.
While only one of the B’nai Mitzvah participants could be classified as an older adult, the lesson is still the same. Age is truly just a number and the richness and fullness that experience brings to learning cannot be ignored or denied. When we fail to recognize that, as individuals, organizations or as a society, we not only disadvantage the older adult but ourselves as well.