On June 15, three residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home’s (LAJH) Grancell Village campus in Reseda had their bat mitzvahs.
While they may be a little north of 13, Edith Frankie, Mildred Moccio, 82, and Linda Frankes, 78, were surrounded by family, friends, residents, administrators and staff as they “came of age.”
Led by Rabbi Karen Bender, the LAJH’s Skirball Director of Spiritual Life, each of the three women received a new tallit, received an aliyah and read a few verses of transliterated Torah from the weekly parsha (Naso).
After studying the parsha in depth, each woman wrote and shared her own dvar Torah. The rabbi also had each of them write a short piece about what becoming a bat mitzvah meant to them.
“I did serious study with them for five months,” Bender said. She met with them as a group for an hour or so each week, as well as individually. “This wasn’t going to be pretend,” Bender said. “They were going to really study, learn, teach at the bat mitzvah and develop skills that they didn’t have. And that’s what we did. They absolutely rose to the occasion.”
Frankie, a Holocaust survivor from a small village in Transylvania, was the catalyst for the group milestone. She had not been very religious until she came to the Home, and now goes to services every Friday night and Saturday morning, and tries to bring others along. When Bender asked Frankie what she thought about becoming a bat mitzvah, Frankie said she would love it.
Bender easily found two other candidates who wanted to participate. Moccio converted to Judaism after entering hospice at the Home last fall. Her daughter previously had converted and while she felt Jewish, Moccio said she hadn’t gotten around to converting. Moccio said she wasn’t afraid to die, but she didn’t want to die not Jewish.
The final member of the triumvirate — Frankes — grew up in a small town in Connecticut, miles away from the closest synagogue. She didn’t have the opportunity to attend synagogue and really wanted to become a bat mitzvah.
“Even if I do this 50 more cycles, until the day I retire, I don’t think there will ever be [a bat mitzvah ceremony] like this,” Bender said. “It was an extraordinary combination of people, with a convert and a Holocaust survivor. People were crying. It was very, very moving.”
“I think it was much more than I expected,” Frankie said. “I felt that I would never get to this point. It was just wonderful.”
Frankes said, “The bat mitzvah was very special and exciting. It was a very deep emotional experience, and the best part was studying in advance. Anyone who is interested in doing it, should. I’m sure they would enjoy it the way I did.”
“It was more than I expected,” Moccio added. “It was so beautiful and it made me feel so much closer to God. It made me feel like a better person. That was the most wonderful feeling a person can have.”
LAJH’s board chair, Andrew Berman, said, “It was truly an honor and privilege to have attended the b’not mitzvah of these three very special residents. I’m so thrilled that through the Los Angeles Jewish Home, they were provided the opportunity to experience the joy and fulfillment of this monumental event at this stage of their remarkable lives.”
Bender said the camaraderie among the three women touched her. “It kind of came out during their [pre-bat mitzvah] photo shoot,” she said. “At one point, Mildred was sitting in the middle of them and just put her hands up on their cheeks. It was so beautiful, and I thought that captures what has gone on among those three women.”
Quoting a midrash that asks, “What is a friend?” Bender said, “A friend is someone that you eat with, drink with, learn Torah with and tell your secrets to. They learned Torah so deeply together. Intense study, then negotiating among them what each one would talk about from the parsha, so they wouldn’t overlap. They just became really close and empathetic and supportive. I think that they felt incredible nachas [toward] each other.”
Now there’s a buzz at the Home among others wanting to become b’not mitzvah. Bender said she plans on starting another group after the High Holy Days. Among those eager to sign up is 89-year-old Eileen Maddis.
“I’ve wanted to be a bat mitzvah since I was 10 years old,” Maddis said. “My father enrolled me at Drake Avenue Shul [in Chicago] and I was the only girl in the class. The rabbi pulled me out after two weeks because I was the only girl and therefore it was disruptive to the boys. It was Orthodox and they didn’t really want girls with the boys.”
Maddis said it’s one of the reasons her father became a Conservative Jew, “because the Orthodox wouldn’t teach his daughter. So he enrolled me in Workman’s Circle Yiddish class, but no bat mitzvah. I know [becoming a bat mitzvah], my parents would be thrilled.”