B’nai Mitzvah | Post-Its

Adult B’nai Mitzvah Class at Kol Ami Celebrates with Czech Scroll

(L-R): Susan-Marie Flanigan, Susan Cohn, Pat Eisenberg, and Ty Condon during their B’nai Mitzvah ceremony at Tucson’s Kol Ami Synagogue, May 18, 2024. Photo courtesy of Ray Cleveland Photography.

Twice before, Susan Cohn had begun the studies necessary to celebrate an adult Bat Mitzvah. Despite her ability to read Hebrew, learning the Torah and Haftarah portions had eluded her.

This year, with the help of her classmates and Cantor Janece Cohen, it all came together. On May 18, she and three other adults, Ty Condon, Pat Eisenberg, and Susan-Marie Flanigan, celebrated the ancient rite of passage, reading from the rescued Czech Holocaust Torah Scroll Cohn and her husband, Herb, brought first to their congregation in New York, then to Or Chadash, and ultimately to Kol Ami.

With a layout slightly different from most scrolls, the Czech scroll does not correspond to the columns in a Tikkun, a book of Torah portions students use to study for their B’nai Mitzvah. Cohn was grateful this didn’t faze her classmates.

All four students were eager to join Cohen’s final adult B’nai Mitzvah class at Kol Ami before she becomes Cantor Emerita this July. They didn’t mind that the usual two-year process was compressed into seven months.

“It was speedy but not rushed,” Flanigan says. She spent the summer before the class started in October brushing up on her Hebrew.

“The synagogue was the only community I had for a while,” says Condon, who moved to Tucson at the end of 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began. “Cantor Cohen was a big part of that.”

Condon prepared for the ceremony while taking a full load of graduate-level social work classes at Arizona State University’s satellite campus in Tucson.

“I love studying Hebrew and I love chanting,” Condon says, admitting that time management was a bit stressful as the May 18 date approached.

For Pat Eisenberg, besides studying with Cohen, the class was an opportunity to learn enough to assist her 13-year-old granddaughter, who will celebrate becoming a Bat Mitzvah in the fall.

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen (left) and Cantor Janece Cohen hold the Torah wimple Susan-Marie Flanigan created for the May 18, 2024, adult B’nai Mitzvah at Kol Ami. Photo courtesy of Ray Cleveland Photography.

On the day of the Shabbat service at which the four would become B’nai Mitzvah, Eisenberg says, she was “excited and terrified. I was just afraid I would completely go blank and not be able to chant my passage.” But Rabbi Malcolm Cohen was there, ready to prompt her, and the cantor was reciting with her, under her breath.

All four students were “spectacular,” Cohen says. “They were so good. And they worked together to make a lot of the decisions.”

The students decided on all the honors, such as which friends and family members would be called up to the Torah for an aliyah and who would open the ark, before Cohen even had the chance to ask them about it.

Cohn notes that the class also learned from Kol Ami’s newly ordained Cantor Sarah Bollt, who wrote her master’s thesis on cantillation, which is both the melody for chanting scripture and its notation.

Now that she has celebrated becoming a Bat Mitzvah — an opportunity not afforded her in her youth — “I feel a sense of accomplishment,” Cohn says. “It filled a need in my Jewish soul.”

For the service, the celebrants placed an empty chair on the bima, a custom to remember the children lost in the Holocaust. In her sermon, Cohn explained that it also represented those lost in the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel.

A poster board about Cheb, the city Kol Ami adopted for its Holocaust Torah, on display at the synagogue, May 18, 2024. Photo courtesy of Ray Cleveland Photography.

Along with learning her Torah and Haftarah portions, Flanigan researched Cheb, the city in the Czech Republic that Kol Ami adopted for its Holocaust Memorial Scroll, an orphan scroll with an unknown city of origin. Her Cheb project was on display on May 18.

Eisenberg feels a connection to the Czech scroll. Her maternal grandmother was born in Prague and her great-grandfather was born in a small village in western Bohemia.

“My grandmother couldn’t remember the name,” she says. “It could have been Cheb.”

Flanigan also created a wimple, a sash to bind the Torah, for the May 18 service.

There’s a tradition of using a baby’s swaddling clothes for a bar mitzvah wimple, says Flanigan, who found an embroidery artist in Israel to outline each celebrant’s Torah verses and Hebrew name on cloth panels. Flanigan filled in the letters and design elements with India ink pens. After the service, she untied the threads connecting the panels and gave each person their section.

The Shabbat service on May 18 was part of a packed weekend of events honoring Cohen. The B’nai Mitzvah students were hesitant about using that date, but Cohen loved the idea.

“What better thing to do on that Saturday?” she asks.