Warren Hellman and his daughter, Tricia Hellman Gibbs, have accomplished much in their lives.
Both are part of a prominent Bay Area family, descendants of Isaias W. Hellman, a famous financier and philanthropist whose legacy includes Wells Fargo Bank.
Warren, 75, is similarly known for his business acumen and for his philanthropy — and also for creating and bankrolling the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a free annual music festival in Golden Gate Park.
Tricia, 50, meanwhile, is a well-respected MD, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, a mother of five, and one of the founders — along with her husband, Dr. Richard Gibbs — of the San Francisco Free Clinic in 1993.
Yet both Warren and Tricia felt something was missing from their lives, which led them to celebrate a father-daughter joint b’nai mitzvah Aug. 20 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.
Officiated by Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the ceremony was nicknamed “the Bluegrass b’nai mitzvah” because of Warren’s love of American old-time music. And even though it was held on a weekday morning (the sanctuary was booked for a Saturday bar mitzvah), a robust crowd of about 150 attended.
It was an event that would have never occurred if not for Tricia, even though Warren has been studying Hebrew text for two and a half decades.
“I’ve been having a Torah class for 25 years,” Warren said. “When Tricia talked about having her bat mitzvah, I said to her, ‘Why don’t we do it together? I think I’m ready to try it.’ ”
Tricia’s path to the bimah was the result of a fairly recent decision. “About three or four years ago, I began to learn Hebrew,” she said. “After all of that study, it just seemed natural to go ahead and actually be called up to Torah and read in front of others.”
Although Tricia was raised secular, Jewish values have always been an important part of her life.
“That’s kind of been the story for our family: Less importance of religion for a few generations, but there’s been more of a connection with philanthropy or tzedakah, as opposed to prayers or avodah [worship],” she said.
“I think there’s time for a little avodah again in our family. With the study of Judaism, I’ve actually found such a connection with bigger questions and larger meanings. It has totally enriched the work that I do to understand where it springs from in the Jewish tradition.”
Both father and daughter credited the clergy at Emanu-El with helping them through the process. “I’ve had more help than I’m entitled to,” said Warren, who wore a Cal kippah during the ceremony and received high fives after his Torah portion. “I think the hardest part was the chanting, just the mechanics of it because I have no experience with it.”
Warren and Tricia chose Parashat Shofetim because its themes resonate in their lives.
Warren said his portion was “about justice. ‘Tzedek, tzedek; justice, justice, you shall pursue,’ “ he said. “If you think of the best of our society, it comes from the thinking that went into creating the Torah. The portion on justice is at the core if that. I think that’s just inspiring. That’s why I love the portion.”
In choosing her Torah portion, Tricia decided to focus on the section about idolatry.
“It’s something that gets to the root of some of the questions I have as a person who grew up outside of religion and very much based in science and rationality,” she said. “This, to me, leads me toward the direction of asking what is there that is larger than rationality?
“I thought I was so different from my father, and it turned out that we were drawn to the same central text.”
With his love of music, Warren grabbed his banjo at the buffet lunch reception and joined his band, the Wronglers, in a rousing version of “Ein Keloheinu” — in bluegrass style, of course.
Warren, by the way, will be adding a “Towers of Gold” stage to this year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival (Oct. 2 through Oct. 4 in Golden Gate Park) as a tribute to Isaias W. Hellman. The name refers to the title of a book about his family’s history written by his cousin, Frances Dinkelspiel.
“Maybe next year it’ll be the Hardly Strictly Klezmer festival,” joked Warren.
The father-daughter b’nai mitzvah journey proved to be a significant bonding experience for both Warren and Tricia, as well as something that had been unseen in their family in recent generations.
“None of my kids or grandchildren have been bar mitzvah,” said Warren, also noting that when he was a child in the 1930s and ’40s, his family did not attend synagogue.
“It’s been a wonderful learning experience,” he added. “There are some channels and connections to the past — recognizing that my family was probably doing this for many years before they stopped doing it.”
While a b’nai mitzvah for a 50-year-old woman and her 75-year-old father might be unorthodox, it fit like a glove for Warren and Tricia.
“It’s kind of like how my dad likes doing things — in an unconventional way and a really cool way,” Tricia said. “I’m really fortunate that he thought of this, because it was a good way to get a chance to know each other better, as well.”
“It was tremendously exciting to share this with my daughter,” Warren said. “After 75 years, I have come home.”