Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Reflections on Becoming a Bat Mitzvah

The act of becoming a bar mitzvah, a public acknowledgment of a young man’s obligation to fulfill the commandments, is a traditional part of Judaism. In today’s society, the spiritual commitment of young women is often celebrated as well. For most of the Jewish Home’s female residents, becoming a bat mitzvah was unheard of when they were twelve or thirteen.

This was true for Jewish Home resident Marilyn Matty. As a young girl, she and her sister attended Sunday school, but not Hebrew school. As a married woman, she learned to keep a kosher home. Marilyn became involved in a Conservative synagogue and, as a pianist, worked with the choir. As life brought its share of challenges, her connection with Judaism was loosened. One day, about three years ago, she realized she wanted to go back to her community and began attending synagogue again. “That was the beginning of my feelings of getting back to Judaism,” Marilyn recalls.
After moving to the Jewish Home in February 2010, the feeling became even stronger, leading her to become a bat mitzvah on November 5, 2011, at age 85. View photos of Marilyn here.

Rabbi Anthony Elman, the Jewish Home’s Director of Spiritual Life, worked closely with Marilyn for 1 ½ years in preparation for her bat mitzvah. He regards this as a valuable part of the overall work of the Home’s rabbis in enhancing the spiritual life of residents and of the Home itself. “We try to respond to the desire of individual residents to develop further in their spiritual tradition,” said Rabbi Elman. “We also provide learning opportunities to a range of resident groups and meaningful prayer services. Our goal is to create a climate for the whole community where the spiritual dimension of life is valued and respected.” In Rabbi Elman’s view, the Home’s rabbis are here not just to allow observant Jews to continue their religious practice, but to give an opportunity for all residents to live spiritually rich lives.

When he addressed Marilyn after she had read from the Torah, he said: “You, Marilyn, are truly worthy of being called to the Torah as bat mitzvah. You achieved the necessary learning and read from the Torah beautifully. Kol hakavod for that – all honor to you. But becoming a bat mitzvah is much more than learning and reading. In my eyes, it is who you are as a whole person who merits this honor today. Walking in the footsteps of our father Abraham, you exhibit the principle of chesed – loving kindness. It is a giving from the heart – not just on a whim, but in a solid, robust, long-lasting kind of way. I have been truly moved by how you have gone out of your way to help and support others, and to practice bikur cholim – visiting the sick.”

Here, in her own words, is Marilyn’s story of accomplishing this great spiritual achievement.

This week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, is the story of Abraham and Sarah. It tells the story of leaving your present home and going toward the unknown. God told Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace, and go to a place God will show him, and he will become a great nation. Abraham took his wife, Sarah, and started on a journey to a new, and unknown, life.

Leaving your familiar home to go to the unknown is scary and uncertain. Like Abraham, I believe a message from God gave me the choice to stay in my home or search for another place to live, with no guarantee of a great nation. With the able assistance and guidance of my daughter, Tina, we found the Jewish Home, Grancell Village. This was the unknown to me, a new place, new room, and new faces, and maybe not a great nation, but a lot of love. Abraham headed west to Canaan and I headed east to Reseda.

After Abraham and Sarah lived in Canaan for 10 years, we are told that Sarah was barren, she had no children. Commentators have suggested that this repetition means she physically had no children, but spiritually she had so many as she inspired so many people.

I in turn find this inspiring. I will talk later about a woman at the Home who inspired me so much, and changed my life.

Sarah decided that the best way for Abraham (and perhaps her) to start a family was for Abraham to take Sarah’s servant, Hagar, as a concubine, with Sarah’s blessing. I see this as a great act of giving, of generosity. I think it was a mitzvah from Sarah’s heart.

Like Sarah, doing something for someone else is very important to me: visiting residents who are ill, seeing new residents or seeing someone who needs company. I have made reaching out to others a part of my life at the Home, and it gives me great pleasure. But if we go back to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, we see that there might sometimes be a downside to giving.

When Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s child, she scorned Sarah, and this was very painful for Sarah, who perhaps had hoped that her relationship with her servant Hagar wouldn’t change.

Sarah told Abraham how badly Hagar was treating her, and he said she should do whatever she wished. Sarah was horrible to Hagar and made her life miserable.

Hagar ran away from her mistress, and, in the desert, she met a stranger in her path. Unknown to Hagar, this was an angel, a messenger from God. He asked her what she was doing and Hagar said that her mistress was unkind and she ran away. The angel of God told Hagar to return back to Sarah and that she, Hagar, would be granted many descendants, so many descendants that they would be uncountable. So Hagar returned home and had a son whom they named Ishmael – “God heard” – that is, God heard Hagar’s pain.

Why did Sarah do such a generous thing as give her servant to her husband for them to have a child? She hoped this would be like a child to Abraham and herself (so that Sarah would bring up the child), and fulfill God’s promise that Abraham would become father of a great nation. Sarah gave, but then it seems she regretted giving; she became filled with bitterness. This makes me question: can giving sometimes go too far?

A true mitzvah is one of giving unconditionally. But I also know that too much giving can deplete one’s resources. As well as giving, I’ve learned the importance of balance in my life. I personally find pleasure particularly in playing blackjack, bridge, reading, and allowing time for hair, nails and chit chat – things that are about fun rather than suffering. These allow me to go on being a person who can be with others in distress.

As we get older, we have to make choices and changes, especially when we are no longer able to be independent. It’s a big adjustment for everyone, but I believe God had pointed the way for me. The Jewish Home has given me a place and I’m finding communal living both beautiful and challenging. My choice to come to the Jewish Home’s Grancell Village was not at first an easy one, but it soon filled by heart and soul with joy. I adjusted, met a lot of people, and satisfied myself with love from the new feeling of community.

Being part of the Jewish Home community brought me back to Judaism, which had become misplaced from my life. I became aware of my hunger, so I started studying Hebrew and Torah, which led on to this exciting moment in my life.

When I first arrived at the Jewish Home, I met a woman who changed my life. She was a young 96 years and always eager to learn. We started reading the Torah weekly and asked questions of the Rabbi. Spending regular time with May Blank inspired me to fully understand and appreciate life. Like Sarah was to countless others, May was an inspiration to me. We developed a great friendship, so that at the end of her life she called me her “sister.” Memories of May will me daily and help carry me through to my Bat Mitzvah. May her soul rest in peace.

There was another woman who became important to me – a wonderful, brave person, Miriam, was part of a “learning threesome” with May and myself, and we became known as “The Three Ms.” Miriam was blind, and had lost a leg, but was active with us, learning and contributing her knowledge and wisdom, until her end.

There are so many wonderful people here at the Jewish Home, that my life is blessed with friendship and love.

I would like to thank Rabbi Elman for being my teacher and guide, helping me to take my place more fully as a Jewish woman. The story does not end here: I plan to continue studying Torah so as to learn and deepen my understanding of our beautiful Jewish heritage. I would also like to thank Rabbi Wendy for her support.

As I look out to the congregation and see my loving family, which include my devoted children and their spouses, grandchildren (and their spouses), sister, two nieces and a nephew, I feel such love for you all. Thank you all for being here with me today as witnesses – and my special gratitude to those of you who are participating in this service this morning. I am intensely proud of my family.

I know that my mother is giving me her blessing because this is the anniversary of her death. Rest in peace, Mom.

Finally, I wish to thank my entire Jewish Home family for their love, and for making this a wonderful Jewish community in which to live.

Once again, I am THIRTEEN!

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