For 90 years, Leona Rothfeld had a dream, and a little bit of resentment: She wanted to become a bat mitzvah, just like her twin brother had become a bar mitzvah in 1932.
In those days, girls rarely went through the landmark ritual marking passage into religious adulthood in the Jewish faith. She had literally stood outside the synagogue in Brooklyn while her 13-year-old brother Irving underwent his ceremony.
“That annoyed me all these years, not only that I couldn’t have a mitzvah myself, but that I couldn’t even be there for him,” Rothfeld said.
Last month, just days after turning 103, Rothfeld finally got her wish.
In the synagogue at the Gurwin Jewish-Fay J. Lindner Residences in Commack where she now lives, Rothfeld became a bat mitzvah on June 18. She was in tears, along with many of her companions at the assisted living complex.
Rothfeld, a longtime Franklin Square resident, said she was “very, very excited” about achieving the milestone. “I feel I wanted it. It took me a long time to get around to it, but I finally made it.”
Rabbi Rafi Batashvili, who oversaw the ritual and conducts services at the facility on a weekly basis, said Rothfeld was an inspiration.
“It was very emotional. She was in tears. The crowd was very moved. I was extremely moved by it,” he said. “It’s not something you do every day.”
“Someone who is 103 years old, she wants to connect to her youth, to her religion, to her tradition, to her roots,” he added. “It’s very moving, fascinating and inspiring at the same time.”
Boys had performed the solemn ceremony since the 14th century, according to Jewish scholars. But not girls. They and women in general were not given the same opportunities as men in Judaism.
It was not until 1922 that 12-year-old Judith Kaplan became the first girl in the United States to become a bat mitzvah, undergoing the ceremony in a synagogue headed by her father in Manhattan, according to scholars.
Last year, synagogues around the country and on Long Island — where Kaplan had some roots — marked the 100th anniversary of the event with special celebrations.
Historians say Kaplan’s ceremony unleashed a revolution in the Jewish faith that eventually led to women becoming rabbis for the first time, in 1972.
But like most Jewish families at the time, Rothfeld’s was not part of the early wave of the transformation. She recalls how she was bitter for years over serving as something of an usher at her brother’s ceremony, telling people which way to go, instead of undergoing the ritual herself.
“Unfortunately, I was standing outside while my brother was having his inside,” she said. “And all these years I always wondered why couldn’t I have one also. If he could have it, why not I?
“I guess it got to me,” she added.
When Batashvili resumed activities at the facility last December around Hanukkah after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic had passed, he celebrated a bar mitzvah for a 90-year-old man.
Rothfeld soon asked to do the same.
“I spoke to the rabbi and he said, 'No problem, I’ll take care of it.' And here I am,” she said.
She recalled how her oldest son, David Rothfeld of East Islip, had joked, “You’re 103, take away the zero and that makes you 13. Go get your bat mitzvah.”
Another son, Elliott Rothfeld of North Bellmore, said, “I think it’s great. This is something that always kind of bothered her. … This is something growing up we would hear now and then. Irving had his and she was kind of left on the outside.”
Batashvili said he has now done several bar or bat mitzvahs for residents of the facility, and they are among the most memorable events of his ministry.
Rothfeld “went through life, through challenges, ups and downs, but that dream of celebrating such a unique moment in her Jewish girl’s heritage never left her. She carried it with her for nearly 100 years.”
“This reflects part of our belief and religion: It’s never too late. Life is full of opportunities and it’s never too late.”