A 96-year-old woman and 12 other residents of an Ohio retirement community celebrated a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony in Jerusalem on Thursday - decades late, perhaps, but with a spirit that only a lifetime of experience can bring.
With the Cincinnati-based Jewish Cedar Village retirement community celebrating its 13th anniversary, director Carol Silver-Elliott said the timing was perfect for a group of residents to travel to Israel for a joint bar and bat mitzvah celebration.
"We thought, wouldn't it be amazing if we could have the residents do it here, in Israel?" Silver-Elliot said.
The rite of passage ordinarily is held at age 12 or 13.
The group gathered for the ceremony at a remote section of the Western Wall where men and women are permitted to worship together. The wall is the last remnant of the biblical Jewish temples, and is Judaism's holiest prayer site.
Helen Kaplan, 96, and the other women on the trip were born in an era when Jewish girls didn't have bat mitzvahs.
Stepping out of her wheelchair to walk down the last few steps to the wall, Kaplan joked, "I feel like I'm walking to my wedding."
When she saw the Western Wall for the first time, she said, "It was all worth it, just for this moment."
Kaplan and other celebrants recited passages about the Creation from the Book of Genesis and chanted and sang Jewish prayers before leaving for a festive brunch at an area restaurant.
The people who joined the trip ranged in age from 76 to 96, and many required months of physical training to make sure they were prepared for the arduous journey, Silver-Elliot said.
Corrine Gutter, 86, was the first to sign up for the trip, which was her second to Israel, Cedar Village staffers said. She fought back tears as she made her way to the wall, aided by her walker and a staffer.
"We're back in our country," Gutter said.
For 76-year-old Erika Gordon, it was her first return to the Holy Land since Israel was declared a state.
She and her mother had escaped to pre-state Israel from Romania during the Holocaust when she was just a child, then moved to the United States before Israel was founded in 1948.
"There's nothing more meaningful than this," she said after the ceremony. "I'm just so happy."
Bernie Siegel, 85, celebrated his second bar mitzvah on Thursday, using the same prayer shawl his son had used for his own bar mitzvah decades earlier.
"I never thought I'd be in Jerusalem doing this," said Siegel, who was accompanied by his granddaughter.