When Berkeley residents Steve and Linda Wolan finally became b’nai mitzvah in June, they couldn’t help but reflect on their lives — he on the past, she on the future.
“I always felt and identified as Jewish,” says 70-year-old Steve of his culturally Jewish upbringing in suburban Chicago, where he would listen to the Chicago Bears on a transistor radio while attending religious school, wearing an earpiece to avoid detection.
At age 13 and on the cusp of Jewish adulthood — 57 years ago — Steve was relieved that his parents did not encourage him to have a bar mitzvah like all of his friends. However, as a grown man who went to High Holy Day and Shabbat services and celebrated his daughter and son’s b’nai mitzvah, he found himself wanting to know more. Worrying that he would be judged by fellow Jews in the pew and that his lack of Jewish knowledge would be revealed, he used being a busy attorney as an excuse not to learn.
Linda also had attended religious school, celebrated Jewish holidays and had a confirmation. Her parents, who fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution, met at a JCC dance in San Francisco and were founding members of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. She describes her upbringing as “a practically ideal Jewish background to start my adult life.” Her decision to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who became a bat mitzvah at age 60, had much to do with her three granddaughters, 10 months, 7 and 9 years old.
She did it for herself, “but also to encourage my granddaughters, as they become young women, to consider becoming bat mitzvah,” the 68-year-old explains.
The Wolans credit Rabbi Bridget Wynne from Jewish Gateways for shepherding them through the yearlong adult b’nai mitzvah process. The Albany-based synagogue without walls offers programs based on people’s interests rather than traditional congregational activities.
“Having been a synagogue rabbi, I became aware of people who were looking for something different,” Wynne says.
In the process of exploring his options, Steve read the Jewish Gateways online banner, which welcomes “wandering Jews, wondering Jews, those of Jewish heritage, non-Jews,” and many others, and thought about where he fit.
“I was a ‘wondering Jew,’ ” he decided. “I wasn’t a wandering Jew because I identified as Jewish and performed Jewish rituals, but there was a hole in my Jewish education.”
I identified as Jewish and performed Jewish rituals, but there was a hole in my Jewish education.
Wynne counters, “How could he know if no one taught him?”
The couple was part of Jewish Gateways’ second adult b’nai mitzvah class, made up of seven students ranging in age from 20 to over 70. Wynne broke down the diverse bunch into three broad categories: those who never had a bar or bat mitzvah, those who had one but felt they didn’t really understand what they’d studied, and those who grew up believing religion is old-fashioned and had bypassed the ritual (millennials, mostly).
Before he began his studies, Steve admits he was baffled about why anyone would study Torah and thought his knowledge was too limited to have intelligent discussions, but he decided to take a chance and began reading the Chumash (the written Torah), including the annotations and interpretations.
Speaking at his bar mitzvah, held at Easton Hall on the campus of Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, he said: “I learned that acknowledging my lack of knowledge and finding a way to learn is an important life skill. Because of the nonjudgmental attitude, I was able to participate and feel that my interpretations of the Torah passages were often perceptive and meaningful to me.”
“I’m so glad Steve was able to say, ‘I am ready to do this,’ ” Wynne says. “He was willing to take the challenge. It was very brave of him. He discovered there was no reason to be embarrassed. Once he had the information and thought about it and reflected on it, he began sharing and asking questions. Soon, we were having amazing learning sessions.”
In contrast to her husband of 48 years, Linda, a real estate professional, never felt like she lacked Jewish knowledge. For her, it was about searching for deeper meaning. At one time believing that Torah study was reserved for the strictly Orthodox, she left each weekly meeting invigorated by the discussion.
“I had always thought of the Torah as Bible stories and looked at them as a child does — literally,” she wrote in her bat mitzvah speech. “Now, through our studies together, I can see these stories as allegorical and can see how the lessons can be seen as relating to contemporary life.”
Wynne adds, “In addition to being a link in the chain from her mother to her granddaughters, Linda learned about connections and meaning.”
Linda is especially pleased with her tallit, which shows the four biblical matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. “I would love to pass this down to our granddaughters as a symbol of Jewish learning and family continuity,” she says. “I hope that they will follow in my footsteps as I followed my mother’s lead.”