Women show it’s never too late for bat mitzvah

It’s been 53 years since Wendy Belkin was supposed to have her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanuel in Great Neck, N.Y.

But two weeks before the service, Belkin’s nerves got the best of her and she canceled the event.

“I literally ran out [of the temple],” said Belkin, 66, of Bal Harbour. “I decided I didn’t want to do it.”

Since the ceremony isn’t required to be accepted into the religion, Belkin remained involved with the temple and always identified herself as Jewish.

But Saturday, Belkin will get a second chance to take part in the coming-of-age ceremony, which girls typically have at the age of 12 or 13.

She is one of 10 women who will participate in a group service at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach following their 18-month stint in an adult bar and bat mitzvah class.

“This class taught us not only how to read Hebrew, but how to be a Jew from within,” Belkin said.

“That’s what’s so remarkable. I feel I have a better understanding of what Judaism is.”

At the group’s rehearsal Friday morning, they held a dry run of the service.

They offered words of encouragement when one of them would slip up, joked with one another, shared personal stories and shared notes with each other.

During Saturday’s service, the women will go through the same ceremony as their younger counterparts.

Only with a small twist: They will go through the ceremony, which is traditionally done individually, as a group.

“Everybody comes for different reasons, but at the end of the year and a half they are a group,” said Rabbi Gayle Pomerantz, who taught the women at the Reform synagogue.

“I think it’s significant because part of being a Jew is being part of a community. It’s very hard to be a Jew in isolation, and this affirms that notion.”

She said that over the years, she has come to appreciate how much of a difference the bar mitzvah experience is for adults versus children.

“For an adult, it’s something they have chosen freely, and for many of them, it’s a transcendent experience coming to this point,” Pomerantz said.

Jeri Zaiac was raised a Protestant but always felt a strong connection to the Jewish faith and converted 21 years ago.

“I had a strong interest in it,” said Zaiac, 51, of Miami.

“Maybe in a previous life I was Jewish, but I had a very strong yearning to learn and understand [the faith].”

As a child, Lin Cherry, 46, decided not to have a bat mitzvah and instead focus on her schooling and extracurricular activities.

Cherry learned of the bat mitzvah class shortly after she moved from Los Angeles to Miami.

“It turned out to be a really incredible experience,” she said.

Cherry made time for the classes despite her schedule as an attorney and mother of a 4-year-old.

The other women in her class also refused to let their busy lives get in the way of their studying.

And they got a bit creative with their study habits.

Many of the women carried their class binders with them at all times.

“I have it with me, and I have some of my prayers on my smartphone,” said Barbara Gelber, 50, of Miami Beach, who would hold study sessions in her car with classmates as they waited to pick her children up from school.

The women with older children even recruited them to help them study.

Julie Pronesti’s son Blaise, who is slated to have his bar mitzvah in September, helped his mom with her studies.

“She studies everywhere, every day, and she’s pretty good,” said Blaise Pronesti, 12.

During the service, the women will be joined by family members, and the children will sing the song V’Shamru.

Pronesti said the class has not only been a bonding experience for her and her son, but it has given her a better sense of connection to her faith.

“I think when you are older, everything is more meaningful for you,” she said. “You are more mature. You are more experienced.”

Looking back, Gelber said that a bat mitzvah ceremony would have been a good thing for her to have gone through as a child.

“It’s a different experience,” Gelber said.

“I was an insecure kid. It would have given me a lot of confidence. Now, it has a different meaning. This is something I started and I finished.”

No matter what the age, one part of the bat mitzvah experience that’s the same is the desire to do well. After Friday’s rehearsal, Zaiac copied a classmate’s notes as Belkin asked the rabbi some final questions.

As the women do some last-minute prepping, their families are looking forward to the big event.

“I think they are all brave for stepping out and trying something new,” said Amy Turkel, 52, who is Cherry’s spouse. “I think it made it a very great experience for all of them.”