A Bar Mitzvah 84 Years in the Making

Dick Kaufmann singing with band in background

Dick Kaufmann is a familiar face to many in the Congregation who’ve enjoyed his “Young at Heart” Yom Kippur study sessions over the years. So, for someone with that kind of joie de vivre, it wasn’t a surprise when he decided that the time was right to fill a void that was missing in his life — becoming a bar mitzvah.

“I was never bar mitzvahed,” Dick says. “I grew up at Washington Hebrew Congregation. My grandfather was involved with the Congregation, and my father was involved. And I’ve been a lifelong member.”

So why the wait? Following the Second World War, the “classical Reform Judaism” led by WHC’s Rabbi Gerstenfeld was all about integration. Jews wanted to avoid ghettoization or standing out from the community where they could be easily identified, so highly public ceremonies like bar mitzvahs (bat mitzvahs were rare at the time) weren’t part of the life cycle. Instead, Dick says, “We had Christmas trees every year. We had Easter eggs.”

As a result, Dick and his friends were all confirmed, but they skipped the traditional ritual for 13-year-olds. That didn’t mean he wasn’t Jewish. He continued to attend Washington Hebrew, and as part of his civic duty, as he saw it, he joined a number of committees, and eventually the board of directors. But when he became Temple president of WHC at age 35, he got the first inklings of what he’d missed.

At a meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations to discuss the history and future of Reform Judaism, Dick says, “I was listening to the presidents of other congregations talk about their backgrounds, and I realized there was a whole realm of history missing from my maturation. They were talking about family events. They were talking about their traditions. And I knew nothing about this. I really felt like an outsider.”

Still, it would take another 45 years before a chance interaction would change his fate. Following the bat mitzvah of a cousin’s daughter, Dick found himself sitting next to Cantor Susan Bortnick at the reception. After telling her his story, she said, “Why don’t you do it now?”  That’s when the epiphany hit for Dick. “I have always had this sort of hollow area as far as my religious beliefs were concerned. And I thought about it and decided that it was a void worth filling.”

Working with Cantor Bortnick, Dick began an accelerated training program without learning Hebrew so he could meet his goal of a November service just eight months away. When the big day came, it was not your typical service. No awkward adolescent on the bimah, uncomfortable in a suit and tie, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack. As Rabbi Sue Shankman said, Dick was a unique bar mitzvah as, “Not only are the words of Torah he’s been studying meaningful, but the words of life he’s been living provide lessons to all of us.”

Dick’s bar mitzvah is a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. If you’ve always wanted to do something, don’t let age stop you; change is always possible.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to go to services any more than I did before I was bar mitzvahed,” Dick says. “But I felt like I accomplished something that was my part of my history and part of my future.  And that I took my place as a real Jew, instead of, as I say, a High Holiday Jew.”