It took Hank Carriere an extra 55 years to leave his boyhood behind him, but, today, the retired Woodland Hills businessman can laugh about his delayed passage into adulthood.
"I'm just glad I finally made it," the 68-year-old Carriere told the nearly 500 well-wishers who had gathered to witness the occasion. "I'm finally a man."
The rite of passage was a bar mitzvah for Carriere and nine other men and women, which took place in a two-hour ceremony on a recent Saturday at Temple Emet in Woodland Hills.
The ceremony culminated more than 18 months of weekly classes to learn to read the Torah and to study Jewish history.
"This is a wild moment for them, the highlight of their lives," said Temple Emet's Rabbi John Sherwood, who encouraged the participants through frustration and discouragement during their studies. "This is something that some of them have wanted to do for years."
Traditionally, boys are bar mitzvahed, or "called to the Torah," when they reach the age of 13, and girls are bat mitzvahed when they are 12, Sherwood said. A bar or bat mitzvah takes place after years of attending Hebrew school and studying the cultural history of Judaism, and signifies the child's passage into adulthood, as well as the end of the parents' religious responsibility for the child.
Sherwood said there are two reasons that an increasing number of adults decide to prepare for the ritual.
"In many cases, the parents didn't care about giving them a religious education. Or, if the parents did care, the person had no interest in it as a child," said Sherwood, a short, energetic man who "didn't discover Judaism" until he was 21.
Carriere fell into the latter category.
Born in Canada and brought to the United States as a young boy after his parents divorced, Carriere said his mother worked long hours to send him and his brother to Hebrew school. However, Carriere said he was more interested in spending his Saturdays playing outside than sitting in a classroom. His mother didn't have the energy to force him to go, he said.
"When I got to be 13 and saw friends of mine being bar mitzvahed, I guess I felt a little bit ashamed and guilty. But I figured it was too late, so I just put it all behind me for many years," he recalled.
It wasn't until Carriere went overseas during World War II that his Jewish roots began tugging at him. He was part of an infantry unit that dismantled German artillery in 1945. He also took part in a musical show that was put on for American servicemen stationed in Germany after the war. While touring different cities, Carriere went to Dachau, where thousands of Jews had been killed.
"Everything was still exactly the way it had been," Carriere said. "It was as if my being a Jew just sat there staring me in my face."
During the next four decades, Carriere and his wife traveled to Israel several times. He was active in a temple in Woodland Hills and served as its president. Still, something was missing.
"We would say prayers, and I was just kind of pretending because I couldn't read," he said. "So, finally, I decided to make the commitment to go to classes and have the bar mitzvah I would have had 55 years ago."
Like Carriere, 47-year-old Neil Mitchell of Canoga Park says he also had a turning point about being a Jew. He had no religious education as a child because his parents couldn't afford it. Mitchell said he only became involved with the temple when his son was old enough for religious studies.
"One reason I wanted to do this goes back to when I was in Vietnam in 1969," Mitchell said. "I went to a Jewish service one Saturday morning, and the rabbi called me up for an aliyah , which means to read from the Torah. When he found out I didn't know a word of Hebrew, he said, 'You go sit down; you're not a Jew.' That hurt me very much, and I made a commitment to myself then that some day, I would go to school and be bar mitzvahed."
Temple Emet, a Reform temple, is not the only one in the San Fernando Valley where men and women can go to prepare for their bar or bat mitzvahs.
Rabbi Jim Kaufman of Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood said about 10 to 20 adults are bar or bat mitzvahed there each year, "and most of them had had no Hebrew." He said most Reform temples offer adult classes, which take from one to two years to complete.
He said Judaism has three factions--Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, the latter being what he calls "a modern approach to Judaism."
Many women who grew up in Orthodox families never had the opportunity to receive formal religious training or become bat mitzvahed, since in Orthodox Judaism, the ceremony is frequently considered important only for boys, Kaufman said.
Mary Aarons, 72, who grew up in an Orthodox family in Canada, says she believes that to have been true in her case.