Congregation Tifereth Israel will celebrate Susannah Sagan, Dec. 7, as she reads from the Torah for the first time, surrounded by friends and family.
Although this ceremony is the culmination of years of study, Sagan is not your typical bat mitzvah girl. The day before the ceremony, she’ll celebrate her 60th birthday.
Sagan, a longtime Columbus resident, worked for two decades at the Hillel at The Ohio State University – first as the director of development and marketing, and then as associate executive director.
For the last year and a half, she has served as one of nine campus support directors for Hillel International in Washington, D.C. She provides support to Jewish students, faculty and staff at Hillels on 22 college and university campuses, although Columbus remains her home base.
Why would a 60-year-old, especially one so involved in Jewish connection and leadership, want to have a bat mitzvah, a ceremony traditionally performed by young teens? Sagan said she never had the opportunity when she was growing up in Englewood, N.J., a town that – at the time – had very few Jewish families.
“I grew up in a very strong, culturally Jewish home without any real religious practice. So the idea that a girl who was born in 1959 would have had a bat mitzvah, that was not even talked about,” Sagan said.
“Now the world has changed significantly, and I wanted to do something big and large and scary and brave and exciting and wonderful to honor turning 60. This seemed like a great idea two and a half years ago. … That felt like a lot of time to get organized and enjoy the process, and now it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s really here.’ ”
She broached the idea several years ago because she wanted to give herself enough time to study so she “wouldn’t feel pressured and then change my mind.”
Sagan has been studying with Tifereth Israel’s Rabbi Emeritus Harold Berman and Senior Rabbi Hillel Skolnik, working informally with Associate Rabbi Alex Braver and learning with Cantor Jack Chomsky.
“It takes a village, and they are all part of my village,” she said, calling the experience “absolutely magical.” “ … I have created totally different relationships with each one of them than I previously had. They’re far more interactive relationships, as opposed to just sitting in the back on the right hand side, singing along with the prayer. … I’m not just a congregant, I’m now equally learning with them, and it’s a lovely surprise.”
Sagan is married to Andy Katz, whom she calls “a man of deep faith,” and they have two adult sons, Ezra Sagan Katz and Tobias Sagan Katz, who both had bar mitzvah ceremonies as teens.
“I had decided that we were going to start to go to Shabbat services, and that, basically, the first time we went to Shabbat services was not going to be the day of my older son’s bar mitzvah,” she said. “That made a lot of sense to me so we went a lot, and we still go.”
Although Sagan has mentored numerous college students over the years, she said she didn’t feel entitled to have her own voice.
“Growing up, I felt that this was something only boys did. That prayer was for men, and that D’var Torahs were for rabbis that were men. And, of course, the world has changed so much that it’s been a real invitation to me,” she said.
Sagan said studying for her bat mitzvah has been a meaningful opportunity.
“First of all, it’s great to do it now. I am, like, a mature person,” she said, laughing. “I can’t imagine doing this at 12 years, 11 months. I’ve lived a life.”
Those life experiences have influenced her point of view. For example, Sagan’s Torah portion is Vayetzei, which tells the story of Rachel and Leah, the matriarchs’ troubles conceiving and issues with their shared husband, Jacob.
“When you’re 13, you have no sense of that, nor should you. Yes, there are things that one can relate to the Torah portion at any age. And we can re-learn the same portion every year and come to it differently as we change,” she said. “But I think that, as a 60-year-old person, you have more empathy. You have more life experience around you, the highest highs and lowest lows, and I think it adds a certain richness to the experience.”
Personally, Sagan said she wanted to have a bat mitzvah to “make sure that my voice is added to the conversation.”
“I feel very much that I am claiming my space, in a way that feels very inclusive and celebratory, and not at the expense of someone else,” she said. “ … I’ve been invited to claim my space, and I’m saying, ‘Thank you.’”
She also expects that this experience will change the way she helps Hillel students.
“I really believe that ‘If I can do it, you can do it’ is a great way to go through life,” she said. “When other people have shared that with me, it’s made me braver and stronger, less nervous and more willing to try something. I think this is really role modeling at its finest because this is not simple or easy. This is extremely challenging, in the best ways.”
Sagan said several women her age have commented on her upcoming simcha and said they could never do that. Her response to future adult b’nai mitzvah students? “If you don’t do this, then the community has lost out on hearing your voice, and everybody’s voice has value,” she said.
Sagan’s family, friends and Hillel colleagues will read from the Torah and participate in other parts of the Dec. 6 ceremony.
“For me, community is everything, so to make the service just about me feels awkward and not my style,” she said. “So the service now has about 20 people who are going to step up and participate in some way, which is really exciting to me.”