Lifelong learners celebrate a milestone in their Jewish journey

Three local grandmothers celebrated their learning with a siyum ceremony.

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"Bubbe, aren't you a little old for a bat mitzvah? Why didn't you do this when you were younger?" Noreen Orbach's granddaughter asked when she learned about the upcoming ceremony.

"I didn't do it then and that's why I'm doing it now," said Orbach, who, along with two other grandmothers, recently participated in a siyum -a celebration of learning-to share what they'd learned in years of study and to pass on traditions to future generations.

Barbara Felt, Noreen Orbach, and Carol Salinger did not have bat mitzvah ceremonies when they were younger, but all three studied with Shoshana Axler, a bar/bat mitzvah tutor, to learn more about Judaism and the Hebrew language. Their journey of study began with reviewing the Hebrew alphabet and culminated with a day of capstone for years of study.

"It was a fantastic idea to get these lovely women to learn and to appreciate learning in an environment they may have been unable to access before," said Rabbi Aaron Braun of Northbrook Community Synagogue, who facilitated practical aspects like the service booklet and order of speaking for the ceremony in May.

"It was a very supportive and warm and loving morning, surrounded by family and friends, and it was a beautiful event," Axler said of the women who she formed "warm friendships" with over the years.

During the ceremony, each woman ascended to the bimah (pulpit), recited a text she selected as having special meaning in her life, and shared this meaning in a bat mitzvah speech.

"It was a chance of a lifetime," said Felt, a grandmother of four who became inspired to learn Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ("To everything there is a season") after hearing it recited at her cousin's funeral. "I realized that for me, that was some of the guidance I was looking for." She saw the passage as a way to grapple with the permanence of death after her parents' deaths shortly before she began studying with Axler.

Salinger, a grandmother of nine and great-grandmother of five, first met Axler as her grandchildren's Hebrew teacher, and became inspired to learn prayers that she heard while at synagogue with her son. "I wanted to know what they're doing-everybody was davening and I was reading the English. I figured I learned Yiddish a little bit, and I wanted to learn Hebrew."

For her part in the siyum , Salinger started with the prayer for the Israeli Defense Forces, thinking of several family members of hers who live in Israel. She later discovered "Gott Frum Avraham," a prayer in Yiddish that is traditionally said by women during Havdalah to encourage a good week ahead. "I've been taking Yiddish at the senior center in Northfield for the last couple of years and can read and write Yiddish, and that fit in so well with what I was doing," she said.

For Orbach, a grandmother of three who began formal Hebrew study as a child, her presentation was a way to celebrate her bat mitzvah after her father's death prevented her from having one when she was younger. "I did the chanting of the Haftarah in memory of my parents and in honor of my grandchildren, and when I concluded both the chanting the Haftarah and doing my sermon, I did the blessing that you do over your children on Shabbat and other times," she said.

After over a year of learning the Hebrew pronunciation, studying the trope to sing the Haftarah , and listening to audiotapes with her eagerly listening dogs, Orbach is excited to continue her studies. "The siyum added to and enhanced my learning experience and created a new foundation, and now I want to build on that foundation. I'm thinking about the next study project or the next thing I want to do, with regards to advancing my Jewish and Hebrew learning."

"Hopefully I'll go on and learn more Hebrew. I want to learn, it keeps my mind well and lets me be independent," Salinger added.

Just as the women are determined to keep studying, they also hope to inspire others to follow in their footsteps. "Maybe there are other people who didn't get a chance to learn to read Hebrew or to study and we could tell them it's possible, we did it," Felt said. "If this encourages just one to take the leap we've been talking about, our studying would have a double mitzvah on it."

As for Braun, "I'd love to do it more often with adults who want that experience…These women are a great example of adults who took the initiative to learn these texts and show the community that it can be nice to learn at any age, and I hope it will motivate more people to have this public learning experience and reflect on something meaningful in their lives." 

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