Temple Emanuel nonagenarian celebrates bat mitzvah
Waiting a lifetimeTo complete a lifecycle event

Temple Emanuel nonagenarian celebrates bat mitzvah

“She doesn’t want to be the center of attention — that makes her feel overwhelmed — but she’s always been so competent,” Stuart said.

Laryn Finder reads from the Torah surrounded by her sons, daughters-inlaw and tutor Bernice Natelson. (Photo by Kim Rullo)
Laryn Finder reads from the Torah surrounded by her sons, daughters-inlaw and tutor Bernice Natelson. (Photo by Kim Rullo)

Jerry Cooper’s was the first bar mitzvah held at Temple Emanuel of South Hills after the Reform congregation was formed in 1951. His wife, Janet, might have been the oldest person to become a bat mitzvah there at the age of 69.

That changed during the Shabbat service on March 23.

The Coopers were in attendance as Laryn Finder, 94, wrapped in a new tallit given to her by her sons, stood on the bimah and celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah.

Finder and her husband, Moses, have been Temple Emanuel members since 1959. Over the decades, they’ve contributed to the temple community, raised three sons and spent thousands of hours in Torah study, at synagogue events, as volunteers for local nonprofit organizations like the League of Women Voters, and participating in the life cycle events of others.

With such a storied history of religious and civic activities, it could be argued that Finder had nothing to prove. And yet the nonagenarian spent recent days as many new teens have done for centuries: learning a Torah parshah and haftorah — including the correct trope in which to recite it — and writing a d’var Torah. She practiced with South Hills resident Bernice Natelson, listening to recordings the tutor made for the soon-to-be-celebrant.

All of this was done in what would have been an untenable learning environment for others, as Finder strove to disrupt her household as little as possible. She stole moments here and there to study when her husband was busy with other things, although she acknowledged during her bat mitzvah speech that Moses was forced to fend for supper alone a few times during the process.

And while Finder didn’t have to fret about her voice changing in the middle of chanting, or an errant pimple, she still worried about not making mistakes and vocalizing the correct vowel in each word.

After completing what many would consider the hard part, Finder looked at those in attendance and said, “Well, I did it, only 81 years late!”
Finder did have the opportunity to become a bat mitzvah at the appropriate age all those decades ago. In fact, she said it was something her mother pushed because she would have been the first girl in her community to celebrate the life cycle event.

“I didn’t want to go in front of people,” she said. “I guess I was frightened.”

Finder said that by standing in front of the congregation and reading from the Torah she not only scratched an item from her bucket list — she was able to do it for her mother.

Remarkably, learning Hebrew wasn’t too difficult for the 94-year-old, who has loved the language since she was a little girl.

“I used to study with the rabbi in our town. I used to translate stories. I could read script. I was really well versed in Hebrew but lost it along the way,” she said. “When I started studying, it came easily. My Hebrew came right back.”

The impetus for Finder’s decision to celebrate her bat mitzvah came when Temple Emanuel announced it was starting an adult b’nai mitzvah class. Finder was interested but knew the group setting wouldn’t provide the motivation she needed to complete the trek.

“I felt like if I did it, I had to do it on my own,” she said. “I think I did a good job. I studied hard and I think I proved that if you really want to do something, you can.”

Finder’s three grown sons, Marc, Rick and Stuart, and generations of her family, including a great-grandchild, attended the celebration — something that meant as much to her as the service.

“That was almost as important to me as the bat mitzvah because I love my family and I love having us all together,” she said. “With the exception of one family with two babies in California, my whole immediate family was with me and that really made it special.”

Laryn Finder celebrated her bat mitzvah surrounded by three generations of family. (Photo by Kim Rullo)

One worry for Finder was her vocal cords, which became problematic when she contracted the flu several months ago. She considered not going forward with the service but then decided to carry through with the ceremony.

Finder’s son Rick said that, despite a moment of concern, his mother was undeterred.

“I loved her spirit going through it,” he said.

He acknowledged having the same trepidation for his mother as he did when his three daughters were preparing for their bat mitzvahs. But all three did wonderfully, thanks to their individual preparation and maybe something a little greater than any one person.

“There really is this collective energy of the group,” he said. “They’re prepared, and they know they can do it. My mom was prepared to the nth degree. It was just an amazing experience.”

Finders’ son Marc said that it was special to watch their mother become a bat mitzvah at Temple Emanuel, the place where he and his brothers became bar mitzvahs.

“My mother gets the privilege of being the oldest person at Temple Emanuel,” he said. “Your religious congregation to which you belong becomes part of your family.”

And while Marc was disappointed his son and his family couldn’t attend the event, his heart warmed when he learned they watched it on Temple Emanuel’s Zoom feed.

The tallit Finder wore was something the brothers bought as a trio. The entire family, however, came together to give Temple Emanuel a new Torah cover to mark the significance of the event, an idea initially broached by son Stuart and his wife, Cindy.

Laryn Finder stands next to the Torah cover given to Temple Emanuel in commemoration of her bat mitzvah at age 94. (Photo by Kim Rullo).

The family had already given the congregation a table for the congregation’s kiddush cup and Shabbat candles in honor of Laryn’s and Moses’ 75th birthdays. They asked Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Aaron Meyer to recommend a gift to mark Laryn’s bat mitzvah. Meyer suggested the Torah cover.

Stuart contacted Israeli artist Chana Gamiel, who made the cover. He said that like the stories told in the Torah, the Finder family was overly anxious to contribute to the cost, and he eventually had to ask everyone to stop giving.

The occasion, and his mother’s achievement, deserved to be recognized, he said.

“She doesn’t want to be the center of attention — that makes her feel overwhelmed — but she’s always been so competent,” Stuart said. “I think that’s the thing that really stands out now that she’s done this huge thing. She did it so competently. She mastered it and did it so relaxed.”

Speaking to the congregation about Finder’s longtime commitment to Torah learning, Meyer, his voice cracking with emotion, told those in attendance that the hope of a rabbi is to bring people to Torah.

“This day, we did just that,” Meyer said. “When we bring people closer to Torah, the hope is that Torah impacts them and sometimes when we bring someone close to Torah for so many years, they impact Torah.”

Finder, Meyer said, did that through the wisdom she added to years of study and the richness she added through her bat mitzvah.

As for Moses, he wasn’t necessarily surprised by his wife’s competence, saying that he was aware of all the time she put into rehearsal and practice.

“I expected her to do great,” he said. “She was so motivated, and I was extremely proud of the end result.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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