Family & Education

Barmitzvahs aren’t just for the kids

Joy Sable reports on the growing trend for octogenarians to celebrate a second bar or batmitzvah


The barmitzvah celebrant is standing on the bimah. Everyone in shul is about to hear the result of months of work, the culmination of hours upon hours of intensive study.  But there are no proud parents or tearful grandparents in the congregation – instead, there are sons, daughters and grandchildren, for this is a second barmitzvah, one undertaken when the participant is not 13, but 83.

What exactly is a second barmitzvah? Are Jewish men required to have one? Similarly, are women supposed to have a second batmitzvah, or is it just a good excuse for all concerned to dress up and fress on a fishball?

“There is no requirement that I am aware of to have a second barmitzvah”, says Rabbi David Lister of Edgware Synagogue. “It is derived from a verse in Psalm 90 which says that the average lifespan is 70 years. So when people pass 70 they might feel as if they are starting on their second life, and that means they attain a second barmitzvah at 70 plus 13, which is 83. I suppose it makes people appreciate their time as a gift from God to be used well and this can only be a good thing.

“I have seen people put in immense effort to celebrate their second barmitzvah.  They have worked very hard on them, sometimes leyning for the first time since their barmitzvah.”

Peter Benscher is 90 and his second barmitzvah, held seven years ago when he was 83, was actually his first one. “I was in hospital in Brighton at the end of the war, with tuberculosis. They didn’t know if I was going to survive, so I’m afraid things like barmitzvahs took the ‘back pedal’,” he explains. “After that, it just didn’t happen.”

Years later, Peter moved to Essex and joined Woodford and District Liberal Synagogue (now East London and Essex Liberal Synagogue), where he eventually became chairman (and is now life president). “We had a new minister who was very dynamic, Rabbi Richard Jacobi. One day, sitting down at the communal Seder table, I said, ‘Richard, are you up for a challenge? Teach me my second barmitzvah, and I haven’t had a first!’”

He shared the occasion with a man who was a Holocaust survivor and was not able to have a barmitzvah first time around. “The pair of us did it, and I think we made quite a good job of it. My Hebrew is almost non-existent, so I had to learn phonetically. The synagogue was absolutely packed and it brought a tear to my ear, it really did.”

In spite of his advanced years, Peter says that he rarely misses shul as Judaism means such a lot to him. So being able to celebrate his barmitzvah, even if it was a little late, was an exceptional event for him and his family. His son Simon is Chair of Liberal Judaism and for him, the occasion was very special: “To see your father standing on the same bimah reading from the same Torah as I had done loads of years earlier, is about as emotional as it gets. As Chair of Liberal Judaism the emotion and pride is no less. One of the core principles of Liberal Judaism is to empower and enable those that have been denied opportunities so many take for granted.”

For Peter it was the realisation of a long-cherished dream: “It was something I had always wanted and something I was never able to do until I was that age. It’s one of those achievements in life, isn’t it? My wife was there [she has since passed away] and she was quite proud of me. We had a nice little party afterwards and I had a sense of satisfaction. Thanks to Rabbi Jacobi, he really helped me.”

Clive Boxer celebrated his second barmitzvah back in July at Mill Hill Synagogue. “It wasn’t really entirely my idea, my wife suggested it. She was all in favour of it – she was keener than I was!” he laughs.

They were both relatively new congregants – they had been members of Stanmore Synagogue for 50 years and had made the move to a flat in Mill Hill. The second barmitzvah provided an excellent reason to have a celebration: “We thought it was an excuse for having a kiddush in the shul and a party on the Shabbat afternoon with friends and family.”

As a regular shul-goer, Clive was not nervous and he read the Haftorah, though he did not leyn the whole Sedra, as he had done first time around.

Back in 1947, Clive read his portion at Cricklewood Synagogue and celebrated afterwards with a marquee in the garden of his home. “I can remember the first barmitzvah very well indeed,” he recalls. “The rabbi who spoke happened to be the Chief Rabbi of South Africa at the time, and he was a brilliant orator. I remember almost verbatim what he said.”

The rabbi at Cricklewood shul was Rabbi Maurice Landy, but Clive’s father had been very friendly with his predecessor – Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, who came over from South Africa especially for the occasion. “After lunch, he played football in the marquee with my friends,” recalls Clive.

Last month Rhona Lubner celebrated her second batmitzvah. Her first had been held back in 1947, in South Africa. “It was in the first Reform synagogue that was ever built in the country and the rabbi was Moses Cyrus Weiler. He did my batmitzvah, he also married me [and my husband],” says Rhona.

After moving to England 32 years ago, she maintained her links with South Africa.  “When my children grew up and grandchildren were born, the children all joined Alyth [North Western Reform Synagogue] because they were living in this part of London so we moved over here. It was suggested by a young rabbi in Capetown that I should have a second batmitzvah, which I had never really thought about. Then my grandchildren encouraged me, and I started studying again. I’ve been able to read Hebrew since I was a small child.”

Rhona worked hard on what was a long Torah portion, learning to read again without vowels. “I wasn’t nervous because I had studied hard and practised with Rabbi Mark [Goldsmith] for months. It was very emotional though. All seven grandchildren, who range from 26 to 16, were with me and had parts in the service, and my three children were all up on the bimah with me and my husband. It was a wonderful occasion.”

Friends travelled from around the world to share the special event with Rhona and her family. Rhona, who turned 83 in September, describes the whole experience as “a wonderful journey”. She says: “It filled me with great satisfaction and content. I was very happy that I did it and I hope I have particularly inspired women. Not many women have a second batmitzvah and after the service I was inundated with women who said they had been inspired to think about doing it.”

For Zigi Shipper, now 87, the marking of his barmitzvah at the late age of 85 was an emotional milestone in his life. Zigi has spent over 25 years talking to thousands of children about his early life, as part of his work on Holocaust education. He met the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Stutthof concentration camp when they visited Poland in July.

“When I was 13 I was in the Ghetto, so I couldn’t have a barmitzvah,” he says. He was brought up by his grandparents, who were orthodox Jews and when he eventually had a celebration at Radlett United Synagogue, his thoughts turned to them. “At the time when I was having it, I thought, it’s really more for my grandparents than for me, if they can hear me speaking… I’m sure if they could see it, they would have both been very happy. I was very pleased to have done it.”


Zigi says that he had been called up to the Torah many times before the big day, but this was a way to finally make it “official”. His barmitzvah celebrations included a kiddush in the shul and a family lunch at home. The only thing lacking was one traditional gift.  “I said to people afterwards that everything was nice, but nobody bought me a fountain pen!” he laughs. “A couple of weeks later, I received a fountain pen in the post!”

For Peter, Clive, Rhona and Zigi, being given the chance to stand up in shul in front of family and friends has been important to them in so many ways. While it may not be something people are obligated to do in Jewish law, plenty welcome the opportunity to make a special occasion out of what is simply another birthday. And at a time of life when going to shivahs and funerals tends to be more common than attending parties, perhaps the question to ask is not ‘why have a second barmitzvah?’ but ‘why not?’ 


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