NEW YORK (JTA) — It was a bar mitzvah for the ages — or, rather, the aged.
A handful of residents from an Ohio retirement community visited Israel for a 12-day mission culminating in a group bar mitzvah in Jerusalem’s Old City.
For some of the octogenarians at Cedar Village in Mason, near Cincinnati, it was their first bar/bat mitzvah.
“I never dreamed this could happen to me,” said Ethel Regberg, 86, who was among those celebrating their first bar/bat mitzvah. Her husband, Paul, 87, had a bar mitzvah, too.
The Regbergs were among nine residents, one family member and 13 staff members who went on the Cedar Village B’nai Mitzvah Mission to Israel last month. The average age of the residents was 86; the oldest participant was 96.
In a ceremony broadcast live on the Internet, allowing friends and family to watch, the residents and four staff members had their b’nai mitzvah at Robinson’s Arch.
Dressed in their best attire, the celebrants chanted and sang prayers, and recited passages about creation from the Book of Genesis. They were called in groups to the Torah; one by one their Hebrew names were called and each read a verse in Hebrew.
“I felt like I was reborn,” Regberg said.
Each celebrant also read a prepared d’var Torah, sharing thoughts and emotions. Following the religious ceremony, the participants went to the Western Wall to tuck prayer notes into the ancient wall’s cracks.
Aside from the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, the group also visited sites in Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Golan Heights, Tel Aviv and the Sea of Galilee — though at a slower pace than most trips to Israel.
“There were plenty of rest stops and breaks in the activities,” said Rachel Festenstein, Cedar Village’s director of marketing and community outreach.
Before the trip, organizers said, residents got into shape with daily exercise regimens to promote cardiovascular health and endurance.
“We had to take a lot of walks around the grounds of Cedar Village,” said one resident, Blessing Sivitz, 89, who celebrated her first bat mitzvah in Israel. “We had to change our speeds, pretend like we were marching, and climb and descend stairs.”
Each staff member on the mission was assigned a resident to look after individually. One staffer was a registered nurse who managed the medications.
Walkers and wheelchairs were brought along, but participants said no one fell ill on the trip or could not meet the mission’s physical challenges.
“We were tired but well taken care of,” Sivitz said. “I felt healthy the entire trip.”
It was Cedar Village’s second mission to Israel in two years and coincided with the retirement community’s own bar mitzvah.
“What better way to celebrate and commemorate our 13th year than with the idea of bar or bat mitzvah,” said Carol Silver Elliott, Cedar Village’s CEO and president.
Two rabbis who traveled with the group, Ruth Alpers of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and Gerry Walter of Cedar Village, put together a special service for the b’nai mitzvah celebration with a prayer booklet that included the d’var Torah written by each bar or bat mitzvah.
A festive luncheon and tree plantings at the Jewish National Fund forest around Jerusalem followed the ceremony.
Despite their years, the Cedar Village residents hardly let up during the trip.
At Masada, after ascending to the top on a cable car, residents made their way through the dusty exhibits using wheelchairs and walkers. On the Sea of Galilee, participants danced on a moving boat. And they safely navigated the uneven cobblestone streets of cities such as Jerusalem and Zichron Yakov.
When help was needed, such as at the Dead Sea, staff provided assistance.
“With challenges like cobblestone streets and unfamiliar places, we want to guarantee that our residents stay healthy,” Elliot said.
The mission also included stops tailored to the interests of staff members, who were mostly Christian. The group visited the Christian Quarter of the Old City, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Christian archeological sites.
“This leg of the trip helped us to understand the various faiths and traditions that all originated here in Israel,” Elliot said.
The group also visited Netanya, a sister city to Cincinnati, where participants surprised the children of Bet Elazraki Children’s Home with handmade blankets and plush toys.
Back in Cedar Village, the group plans to screen slide shows of their trip to inspire more mitzvah missions to the Jewish state.
“The trip was a dream come true,” Regberg said. “And the grandchildren got plenty of souvenirs!”