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Rite of passage for the ages girls become bat mitzvah at Jewish Home

In a world where a bar or bat mitzvah can be an exercise in “keeping up with the Goldsteins,” the recent b’not mitzvah of the Perlman twins was replete with several layers of symbolism and meaning.

The Aug. 29 ceremony and reception broke new ground as the first event of its kind to be held in the 100-plus year history of the Jewish Home of San Francisco. While the senior residence has hosted b’nai mitzvah in the past, this time the participants were 13-year-olds, not adults.

The twins, Olivia and Anna, view their coming-of-age ceremony at the senior residence as a true mitzvah.

“It made me feel really good to be able to share my bat mitzvah service and reception with the residents,” Olivia said. “Most of them probably haven’t been involved with a bar or bat mitzvah for many years, so it’s amazing that we brought this Jewish tradition to them.”

Rabbi Batshir Torchio of the JCC of San Francisco “guided Olivia and Anna throughout this journey,” their mother said.

The twins’ parents, Karen and Brian Perlman — no strangers to deep involvement in the Bay Area Jewish community — said the idea to celebrate their daughters’ lifecycle event at the Jewish Home came naturally. Karen’s grandmother once lived at the home, and Brian serves on the board of directors, so it was a perfect fit.

“We wanted to bring that ritual to a place that’s part of the community but sometimes not incorporated into the community,” said Karen Perlman, a native San Franciscan and the daughter of former S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation president Ron Kaufman and former San Francisco Supervisor Barbara Kaufman.

Noting that the institution — first incorporated as the Pacific Hebrew Orphan Asylum and Home Society — has served the San Francisco community since 1871, she said, “We were looking for a way to bring added meaning beyond the amazing opportunity to see our kids become b’not mitzvah, and this struck the right chord for our family.”

The idea also tied in nicely with an ongoing tzedakah program at the Brandeis School of San Francisco, where the twins are eighth-graders, added Perlman, who serves on the school’s board of trustees.

“B’nai mitzvah is more than a service and a party … it’s about finding your place in the world and in the Jewish community as a responsible adult,” she said. “The seventh-graders do a tzedakah-related philanthropy project, learning about giving back. It goes on the entire year, and this seemed like a nice tie-in.”

The b’not mitzvah invitation included a request for a donation to the Jewish Home or another organization in lieu of a gift. “They raised a lot of money for the Jewish home and Dr. Rick Hodes’ spinal clinic in Ethiopia,” Perlman said. (Hodes is a physician and medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ethiopia.)

The Home’s officials liked the idea “from the first mention,” she said. “They embraced it. They said ‘yes’ to just about all our requests and were wonderful to work with.”

One way the family chose to bring the senior residents into the spirit of the day was to hold a centerpiece-making workshop.

“We did a flower-arranging class and the residents made the flower arrangements and they got them afterward,” Perlman said, adding that about a dozen women participated. “Some came in wheelchairs, some in walkers, and it was lovely. They wanted to know all about the girls and several asked if we could do this every week.”

Daniel Ruth, the Home’s president and CEO, was delighted and grateful that the Perlman family brought the event to the seniors.

Olivia (left) and Anna Perlman with Edie Shaffer, president of the Home’s residence council. photos/susan adler

“As I leave the Home this evening, I see the various folks working on the tent and making all the necessary preparations in advance of the b’not mitzvah tomorrow,” he wrote in a note to the family. “I want to thank you and your daughters for choosing the Jewish Home as your venue, and for being so incredibly thoughtful and generous in having the residents be able to be involved and witness this most special lifecycle event in the history of the Perlman family. It is bringing a wonderful hub of activity and excitement to the entire Jewish Home community.”

Since the Home’s sanctuary was not large enough to accommodate the family’s guests and all of the residents, the ceremony was made available for live viewing on TV in residents’ rooms. Afterward, everyone was invited to the reception, which featured a klezmer band, Perlman said.

The few dozen elders who showed up “seemed to enjoy it,” she said. “It was really lovely, and it was nice to bring that kind of energy” to the facility. “It was a way to make it a broader community event and shine a light on a segment of our community that doesn’t always get the attention it should, and to spotlight this facility as the community treasure it is.”

Ellen Marks-Hinkle, 72, said she and many other residents enjoyed the event and appreciated the thoughtfulness behind the invitation.

“Olivia and Anna were so cute,” said Marks-Hinkle, who is vice president of the residents’ council. “They introduced themselves to me, saying it was a pleasure to meet me and thanked me and the other residents for sharing the reception with them. It was wonderful having the different age groups gathered in one spot. It felt very warm, and all the teenagers were so friendly and respectful.”

Marks-Hinkle said the residents also enjoyed the girls’ grandmother showing photos of the girls when they were younger. And the food at the reception was “out of this world,” she added. “I think the peanut sauce was the best I’ve ever tasted.”

Perlman said she and her husband especially enjoyed the ceremony.

“The sanctuary is simple, haimish and lovely, warm and intimate, and that was the highlight for us, to watch our daughters transform into mature young women, leading a traditional Jewish ceremony. What resonated most with me was the expression by several residents that they wish they could do this more often.”

The girls loved it, too, according to their mother, who said there was a big party that followed the ceremony and reception, “with food trucks out front, and the kids were dancing. It was really fun.”

Anna said the experience is one she’ll carry with her always.

“It was extremely special for me to have the opportunity to have my bat mitzvah at the Jewish Home because it made me feel like I could share my special event with a whole other generation,” she said. “This gave the true feeling of l’dor vador, passing this incredible Jewish ritual from generation to generation.”