September 17, 2019

Eishet Mitzvah at Nachshon Minyan

On May 1, the sanctuary of the Baha’i Center in Encino was filled with Jewish families excitedly enjoying an unusual event: a group bat mitzvah for adult women, a study group through which the women had come to feel such a deep commitment to Torah, such a strong sense of personal transformation, that only a formal rite of passage would do.

Because these women range in age from their late 30s to mid-70s, Cantor Judy Greenfeld — Nachshon Minyan’s spiritual leader — decided that “bat mitzvah” was not the right term; instead, she calls each of them an “esha mitzvah,” a woman of the commandment rather than a daughter.

“The reason that we call it ‘esha mitzvah’ is important,” Greenfeld said in an interview. “To do the mitzvah at this stage of one’s life is to understand what it means.” After having studied Torah together with Greenfeld for years, the women wanted to have “some kind of ceremony” to mark their progress. “I found out that many of them, especially the older ones, had not become bat mitzvah — that was not a common thing to do at that time.”

Nachshon is a nondenominational Valley-based minyan that started three years ago. The group does not have a rabbi, and Greenfeld, a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion, leads services and programs that — according to Nachshon’s flier — “enrich” the congregants’ Judaism “through music, art and intellect.”

After starting Nachshon, Greenfeld organized the Torah study group. More women joined the group two years ago, after Greenfeld met them during a trip to Poland and Israel.

Over the years, as the women’s involvement with Torah developed, Greenfeld taught the group about other aspects of Judaism: davening,  experiencing a mikveh, Jewish views of ethical and moral issues, how to read and chant Torah. One of their tasks was to make a personal talit.

“Each talit is gorgeous,” Greenfeld said. “They also tied their own tzitzit and learned the spiritual meaning of that.”

Outside the study group, several of the women have faced daunting personal issues. “Since the group has been meeting,” Toby Rothman, 73, said, “I’ve gone through brain surgery and ovarian cancer and chemotherapy. Each time I’d go to Cedars-Sinai, I had a calmness about me, and I really believe it has a lot to do with this Torah study group. I think the bottom line is the words that were written on the talit: ‘With God, I shall not fear.’

“I love the women in the group,” Rothman continued. “We’ve confronted a lot of real issues. One of them doesn’t believe in God, and she worked hard at her bat mitzvah; she’s really evolved.”

Jackie Chapkis, a spirited grandmother with a British accent, makes no bones about her lack of belief. “I went into that class to look at the history of the Jews through the Torah, very emphatically saying that I’m not a believer in God. I gave my reasons, and the girls were wonderful with me, as was Judy [Greenfeld]. As time went on, I came to love Torah. One of the girls said, ‘This is the best self-help book I’ve ever read.’ ”

Chapkis said she still does not believe in a supreme being but that participating in the eishet mitzvah ceremony was a high point of her life. “I was fulfilling an ancient rite,” Chapkis said. “I felt as if I were fulfilling my ancestors, I was fulfilling the Holocaust, I was fulfilling the people who died for this. It was an extraordinary experience. My heart was full, and my family was there to witness.”

At a particularly emotional moment during the “eishet mitzvah” ceremony, the women stood along the length of the two aisles, several yards apart from one another, facing the congregation. Each woman, with arms outstretched, held up the talit she had made.

Later, after the Torah scroll was removed from the small portable ark, most of the women in the study group chanted the Hebrew tropes of that week’s Torah portion, just as a bat mitzvah would do.
Their husbands, children and grandchildren chanted the aliyah prayers before and after each reading.

As part of the ceremony, several women spoke movingly about their personal journeys and what this study group has meant to them. Laura Drexler, a mother of adult children, said the group made her “feel connected to Jews past, present and future. There’s been an undeniable magnetic pull that’s kept us searching for more Torah.”

In an interview in the days after the ceremony, Drexler said the Torah study group is “a combination of old and young, experienced and inexperienced, Hebrew readers and those who don’t read Hebrew, the entire spectrum. We just jelled together. So much has happened during these three years that we’ve become a support system for one another.

“It’s been a magical thing,” Drexler said. “The study group is far more than the [eishet mitzvah] ceremony. That was a public demonstration of our commitment to each other and to the process of learning. But I know that it’s going to continue. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I know that we’re on this path.”