The event would be nerve-racking for them—appearing before nearly 300 friends and family members, reading aloud ancient Hebrew psalms, waxing wise about why it all mattered in their lives. But when ten Ohio women ages 89 through 96 flawlessly finished their bat mitzvahs—experiencing together the coming-of-age ritual they were never allowed to have as girls—there was dancing in the synagogue aisles.
"It's something I always harbored in my thoughts, and it finally came to fruition," says a beaming Eva Rosenberg, 91, a retired elementary-school teacher who "couldn't believe" so many had showed up for the occasion last March.
Tradition once dictated that only boys experienced this milestone—for them, called a bar mitzvah—but most non-Orthodox synagogues eased the rules years ago (the first bat mitzvah in the United States was in 1922, though it took decades for the ceremony to become common). And so the women, all residents of Menorah Park Center for Senior Living outside Cleveland, happily accepted their rabbi's invitation to make up for lost spiritual time. On the big day, Molly Kravitz, 96, the eldest of the group, dressed in purple, her favorite color.
For all the clamor around their celebration, the women say they weren't making a statement about past wrongs—just affirming they're still living life with gusto and glee. Fay Kadis, 94, wants to continue studying Hebrew and Yiddish, if she can cram it in between Cleveland Orchestra concerts, weekly opera-group discussions, and courses on the history of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I always had so many irons in the fire that I never became proficient in Hebrew," Kadis says. "But this has sparked my interest in it again."