From an Israeli army base to the bimah in Napa at age 80

You know what they say: 80 is the new 13. Well, at least in the case of Rachel Friedman it is.

Not only did the 80-year-old Napa resident become a bat mitzvah last month, but she also showed the youthful vigor and the save-the-world spirit of a teenager when she volunteered on an Israeli army base last November.

Friedman participated in the Sar-El Volunteer for Israel program and spent two weeks with the Israel Defense Forces in Eilat.

“It was amazing,” Friedman said. “I lived in barracks and worked hard. It was a great experience. We polished howitzers, did warehousing, folded camouflage gear, wrapped things, loaded trucks — whatever they needed.”

She even helped move furniture!

All of that could have made her bat mitzvah on June 12, at Congregation Beth Sholom in Napa, seem like small potatoes, but of course it wasn’t. She joined 70-year-old Zoe Kahn and 60-year-old Belle Altman in a triple ceremony that proved to be emotional, insightful and joyous.

“There were about 300 people there — my whole family was there. It was wonderful,” Friedman said. “I didn’t expect to get this kind of hoopla. I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but everyone else did. I was thrilled.”

Recent bat mitzvah “girls” (from left) Belle Altman, Zoe Kahn and Rachel Friedman of Napa. photo/rick anderson

The three women, all Napa residents, studied with Napa-area Hebrew teacher Anne Percelay, each with the intent of seeking to have a deeper understanding of their Judaism.

“I never had the opportunity to learn Hebrew when I grew up in South Carolina. We were nowhere near a synagogue,” Friedman said. “I wanted to be able to read the prayers. One thing led to another, and all of the sudden, there I was [on the bimah]. I couldn’t believe it. It’s just one more thing on my bucket list.”

Kahn said that for her, the ceremony reverberated with powerful emotions and thoughts of her ancestors.

“I thought it was a rite of passage, even at 70, but it was extremely powerful to study and feel so physically connected to the Torah — to see the printing on the page and all of the ritual around it,” Kahn said.

“Originally, I thought about doing this just for myself; this was my time,” she added. “Then I realized that the more I studied and the more spiritual I became, the more I was doing it for my parents, who were immigrants and came here a long time ago searching for a better life, and for my family that was killed in the Holocaust.”

Rachel Friedman reads from the Torah during her bat mitzvah on June 12. photo/rick anderson

Friedman, too, said the ceremony was extremely powerful, and she’s proud that she took the extra step of learning Torah trope.

“Chanting Torah was truly awesome,” she said enthusiastically. “It was like when you think you can never do something and then you stand there and experience it. It was such a big step and very hard work. I was really proud of myself for having reached this.”

Altman, the youngster of the trio at 60, said she began studying Hebrew with “no intention of having a bat mitzvah.” That was seven years ago.

“The only reason I was doing that was so I could understand the prayers and get more out of the High Holy Days services,” Altman said. “Now I feel more part of it all. I remember my mother telling me that I couldn’t wear a tallit if I wasn’t bat mitzvahed. I never  wore a tallit before, but the three of us all went to Afikomen [Judaica in Berkeley] to buy them. I feel more real now.”

Friedman said she, too, feels like a more complete person.

“I’ve always been truly conscious of my Judaism, and it’s been important to me,” she said. “But now I feel that I have more understanding and it means more to me now, spiritually and intellectually. It just feels better.”

Add the experience of her bat mitzvah to her volunteer experience in Israel, and it’s been quite a year for the 80-year-old.

“She’s a dynamo in general, and she absolutely loved it,” Donna Mendelsohn, 74, said of Friedman’s time on the IDF base in Israel. A past president of Beth Sholom, Mendelsohn served side by side with Friedman in the Sar-El program, where they did tasks such as straightening up warehouses, packing duffel bags for soldiers, painting, cooking and helping load supply trucks.

“She is very tiny, but she kept up with all of us,” Mendelsohn said. “We lived in the barracks with the Israeli soldiers, we ate the army food, and we did the jobs that those kids were doing.

“It was awe-inspiring to see these kids and what they were doing for the country and for democracy in Israel. Rachel was the oldest one of our group — and she inspired everyone.”