Some things are worth waiting for — even if you didn’t realize that you were waiting for it. Not to mention how pleasurable the experience would be, or how good it would feel afterward.
Just ask Isabell Adler of Springfield, who celebrated her bat mitzvah in October.
Isabell is 90. In fact, she became a bat mitzvah on the weekend of her 90th birthday.
“When I was 12 years old — I went to Hebrew school in an old Orthodox synagogue on 16th Avenue in Newark — I wanted to continue learning,” she said. But the young student was told she could not. “The teacher said the next year was only for bar mitzvah boys.”
Isabell told her father, the late Harry Dansiger, who subsequently talked to the teacher himself — with the same result. Isabell did not have her bat mitzvah. But she did continue to learn and to embrace synagogue life. Indeed, at her long-delayed bat mitzvah last month, “I did a lot of the service on Friday night and much of Shacharit on Saturday,” she said. “I also read maftir and delivered a dvar Torah.”
Isabell is proud of her synagogue, Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, a Conservative egalitarian synagogue in Springfield, which, she said, “was among the first synagogues to have adult classes for women” culminating in b’nai mitzvah services for the men and women who graduated. Still, as a young woman, she didn’t take advantage of that option. “I was raised traditional,” she said. “I didn’t go up to the Torah.”
Isabell, who was born and grew up in Newark, met her husband, David, when she was 18. They lived first in Newark, and then moved to Springfield. “We stayed in Newark through two kids, on Avon Avenue, next to Hershel Cohen’s shul,” she said.
The couple joined with other families at what was then called the Jewish Center of Springfield. Friday evening services were held in the Presbyterian Church Parish House. “The church was good to us,” Isabell recalled. As the synagogue grew, it needed larger quarters, so the families bought land, hired Rabbi Reuben Levine, and became Temple Beth Ahm, the only synagogue in Springfield at the time.
“We joined Beth Ahm before there was a shul,” Isabell said. “We came in after the founding, but before the building. It had no name yet. We helped build the shul. We literally did things like painting the walls and laying tiles on the floor.” Her expertise, she said, lay in scrubbing the floors.
Ultimately, as the synagogue grew, “a group pulled away from us, forming an Orthodox shul, Congregation Israel, and another formed a Reform synagogue, Shaarey Shalom.”
“I never considered myself an organizational person,” Isabell said — but, it turned out, she was. David became president of the shul’s men’s club, and Isabell was elected president of its sisterhood. After that, she spent 16 years on the synagogue board as recording secretary and vice president. During those years, she also was the president of the Springfield chapter of the Jewish National Home for Asthmatic children, which later became the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital.
Isabell and David became snowbirds, creating a second home in Florida in 1980. When David died in 1994, Isabell joined another newly forming synagogue, Temple Torah, and helped get that started as well. She sang in the choir in both synagogues, in New Jersey and in Florida, belongs to both sisterhoods, and is a regular in the daily minyan at both shuls. Before covid stopped in-house attendance at the minyan, she said, it was her job to bring bagels and cream cheese for Monday morning minyans in Springfield.
“I get up at 6 a.m. for the 7 o’clock morning minyan,” she said. “At 6:30 I’m getting the bagels, and then I open the shul at 6:45 and plug in the coffee. When I was younger and we were producing our own bulletins monthly, after putting the kids to bed, I went to the shul at 10 p.m., locked the door, and did the mimeographing, collating, and then the mailing at 3 a.m.”
Not surprisingly, people who scrub floors and plug in coffee machines generally don’t get plaques, and that’s how Isabell likes it. Nevertheless, when David died and a plaque for the sanctuary in Beth Ahm was to be named in his memory, all of their children — Lee, Randi, Jay, and Aaron — insisted that it should have both names.
At Temple Torah in Florida, the school entrance is in memory of her son, Lee, who worked in the World Trade Center offices of Kantor Fitzgerald and died on September 11, and the sanctuary is the David Adler sanctuary.
Isabell’s preferred way of helping the synagogue now is to go in around the time she observes several yahrzeits — she lost a sister, a son, and her mother and mother-in-law at around the same time — and ask the shul what it needs. A sound system? A roof repair? Once she knows what the need is, she fills it.
Isabell said that her own parents were wonderful role models. “My father was kind and very honest. He was a watchmaker and had a jewelry store. He could get diamonds on a handshake from one of the largest dealers. They knew and respected him. He was also a yeshiva bocher when he was young. His parents wanted him to become a rabbi.”
“My mother, Sara Dansiger, was a 4-foot 10-inch dynamo. She ran the business. When I was 12, she took me to New York and showed where the engraver, gold and silver dealers, and diamond-setters were. At age 12, I went into New York with jewelry in my pocketbook. I looked 16 or 17.”
Synagogue involvement is a constant in Isabell’s life, and she considers her two shuls “a home away from home.” After her mother died in 1977, she became a regular at the minyan, and she still goes as often as she can. While Isabell claims to be a procrastinator, that’s hard to believe. But it’s easy to understand her second self-criticism. “I can’t ask people to do things,” she said. “I do it all myself.”
But back to her bat mitzvah.
In 1994, shortly before the baby naming of a grandchild, David fell ill. The naming was delayed, as the family waited for him to get better. As it turned out, David had pancreatic cancer and died soon afterward. Ultimately, the naming did take place, and Isabell had her first aliyah.
What changed? Isabell remembers being told by Perry Rank, who then was the synagogue’s rabbi, “Listen, you know the brachot as well as anyone here. It’s not written anywhere that women cannot go to the Torah.” So she did, “and I haven’t stopped,” she said.
Rabbi Adrienne Rubin certainly can attest to that. As she noted after the recent “coming of age” celebration, “It is not every day that we have the honor of celebrating the bat mitzvah of an adult congregant, let alone one who has been such an integral part of our synagogue family for so many years.
“Isabell assumed the responsibilities of being a Jewish adult many years ago, and her commitment and dedication have served as examples to countless adults and children, both here and in Florida. It was a joy and an honor to be a part of this milestone, when Isabell was finally and formally called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.”
Family is an important part of Isabell’s life. As a young woman, “I had four children in 5 l/2 years,” she said, noting that she was 27 when her fourth child was born. “I wanted to grow with my children,” she explained. Isabell would have liked six children but had to stop after four for health reasons. “With the fourth, I fell flat on my face,” she said. “My husband said, ‘Enough.’ ”
From those children and their spouses came her four grandchildren. Her first great-grandchild is due in December.
Has her bat mitzvah made her feel any different? “I do feel different,” she said, noting that in a certain way, she feels fulfilled. “While I never missed it, I now realize it was something I wanted. My family is extremely proud.”