Homeless celebrate Bar, Bat Mitzvahs

B´nai Mitzvahs Gertrude, left, and Sally Lieberman inspect their tallitot on Dec. 19 at the Town and Village Synagogue. (E. B. Solomont)

B´nai Mitzvahs Gertrude, left, and Sally Lieberman inspect their tallitot on Dec. 19 at the Town and Village Synagogue. (E. B. Solomont)

NEW YORK, Dec. 23 (JTA) — Sally Lieberman ascended the bimah, a new woolen tallit draped over her shoulders and a lace head-covering perched atop her mop of gray hair. In the audience, Lieberman’s estranged brother was about to watch her become a Bat Mitzvah, decades into an adulthood marked by family strife and homelessness. On stage at New York City’s Congregation Tifereth Israel, also known as the Town & Village Synagogue, Lieberman was joined by two other women and two men in becoming B’nai Mitzvah on Saturday. All are clients of Project O.R.E., a program of the Educational Alliance that aids homeless Jews. The day before the ceremony, the group practiced filing onto the stage and reciting the blessings before the Torah portion. They got a taste for what would come the next day as they were serenaded with a round of “siman tov u’mazel tov” by Project O.R.E. volunteers and the temple’s rabbi and cantor. Lieberman bounced in time with the music, her turquoise sweater and multicolored scarf reflecting her excitement and pride. The moment was months in the making. The adult Bat Mitzvah of Rosalie Osian, a volunteer with Project O.R.E.’s Shabbat O.R.E. program, in September 2003, set off the chain of events that led to Saturday’s ceremony. Several clients of the Shabbat O.R.E. program, which serves sit-down Shabbat meals, were so inspired by the experience Osian described that they wanted to have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of their own. They volunteered to study with Osian, who was training to be a chaplain, and with volunteer Danny Zalta, for an hour every Friday night for the next 13 weeks. The group covered basic Jewish concepts, including the blessings over bread and wine. They read Torah stories and reflected on different ways to believe in Judaism. They also learned about Israeli history. The program was basic but never sugarcoated, the soft-spoken Osian said. “This is a population of people who really have suffered, so the teaching had to be with integrity,” she said. One challenge was to make the material appeal to all the students. Some had religious backgrounds, while others couldn’t spell their names in Hebrew. Some participants attend synagogue weekly, some on High Holidays and some not at all. Their reasons for participating varied. Lieberman says she wanted to “learn about Judaism.” She attended Hebrew school at the Educational Alliance as a child, but admitted in a speech to the 200-person congregation Saturday that “in my life, there wasn’t much Jewishness.” Marvin, another participant, grew up fairly observant. He said he had a Bar Mitzvah at age 13 but decided to have another one on Saturday to “renew his faith in God.” For Michael, age 28, he used the opportunity to learn basic Jewish concepts that he had long been too embarrassed to ask about because he felt he should have known them already. But Michael’s experience also spoke to the extraordinary hurdles all five of the participants endured — not only to become B’nai Mitzvah, but in living as homeless Jews. “When I was a kid, I knew other children who were Jewish, so I felt — and I don’t want to sound like I feel sorry for myself — that they had something that I didn’t,” said Michael, referring to his peers’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. A Bar Mitzvah is a “point when you become a man, and it’s a big event and in a selfish way you get lots of presents and lots of money,” he said. “I know I can’t have that, but this is a part that I wanted to at least have. If not, you are never a man at all.” At different points during the service, the B’nai Mitzvah had opportunities for personal reflection. As Lieberman donned her tallit, a gift from the Educational Alliance and Project O.R.E., she said she meditated and tried to clear her head. “I am angry sometimes. Things don’t work out exactly the way you want them, but you learn to accept things,” she said. Michael’s mother, Rose, who is also homeless and who also celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on Saturday, told the congregation that she wished for a better life for her son. “Learning about Jewish life in the B’nai Mitzvah class reinforced the good qualities of our religion,” she said. “To my son, Michael, I say . . . Go forth and conquer. I’m glad you are blossoming in this religion.” Rose’s positive outlook may have been surprising, given her difficult life. Rose’s mother’s medical bills ate up the rent money, resulting in what Michael euphemistically called a “housing situation” that grew progressively worse. For synagogue congregants, the day showcased the faith — and plight — of homeless Jews. “The main problem is that people don’t think there are Jewish homeless people,” said Michael, who eventually found housing after Project O.R.E. facilitated an introduction to a Brooklyn landlord. Though Project O.R.E. serves the homeless, many clients live in shelters, temporary housing or low-income housing. Homeless statistics are not exact, but Pinchos Kurinsky, Project O.R.E.’s site director, estimates that there are about 2,000 homeless Jews in the New York area. “We serve anywhere from 35 to 55 daily, with 250 unduplicated clients over the course of a year,” he said. Total homeless estimates for the New York region are about 40,000 people, including individuals and families living in shelters, said Beverly Cheuvront, director of communications at the Partnership for the Homeless. “As a Jewish community, we generally don’t acknowledge that we need to cater to Jewish homeless clients,” said Miryam Rosenzweig, the Educational Alliance’s director of volunteer alliance. “A lot of times, our reputation is that Jews are rich and that Jews don’t have homeless people.” The Educational Alliance established Project O.R.E. in 1986 to provide hot kosher meals, mental health counseling and housing and job referrals to homeless Jews. The program relies on funding from the UJA-Federation of New York and private donors. About 35 people come to Shabbat O.R.E. “The idea is to take care of their spiritual side,” Rosenzweig said. The Educational Alliance gave the Bar and Bat Mitzvah students traditional accessories of the rite of passage. Invitations were printed, and each participant was given a tallit and siddur. “Most would not have the opportunity to own a ritual object,” Rosenzweig said. “A tallit is a luxury.” But even with praise for what Osian called an “uplifting” and “hopeful” service, it seemed hard to forget where the guests of honor came from, though they dressed for the occasion in slacks instead of jeans and shoes instead of sneakers. They had to worry not only about remembering the blessings and their speeches, but also about finding transportation to the shul, Osian mused. While seven had prepared for the occasion, only five showed up. In the end, one student was too shy to follow through and another was sick, she said. “She has a beautiful singing voice,” Osian said of the sick woman. But, she noted, “She hasn’t come for a couple of weeks, so I don’t know what happened.”

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