Teacher of 4,000 b'nai mitzvah
prepares at age 90 for her own
SHELLI LIEBMAN DORFMAN
fter teaching b'nai mitzvah students for more than 40
years, Sylvia Barr finally decided it's time for her to be
called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah herself.
Inspired by her recent 90th birthday, Barr will cele-
brate becoming a bat mitzvah at Temple Shir Shalom on Saturday,
Never intending to become the teacher of some 4,000 bar and
bat mitzvah students, Barr's (-Ailing actually evolved from tragedy.
"When he was almost 12, my son Maurice died," said Barr of
Southfield. "All I really wanted to do was to learn enough Hebrew
to be able to say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for him."
She already knew some Yiddish and, since the Hebrew letters
are the same, Barr said learning to read Hebrew came easy. During
her studies with the late Rabbi M. Robert Syme at Temple Israel,
where she had been a member, the rabbi suggested she take her
new skill and teach it to others.
In time, she had a revelation that made her decide not just to
teach Hebrew reading, but to teach Torah reading to youth
preparing to become b'nai mitzvah. "God said to me, 'I took your
12-year child, but I am giving you thousands of 12-year-old chil-
dren to teach,'" Barr said. "Every boy and girl I teach is like my
Shir Shalom Rabbi Michael Moskowitz said, "Anytime you see
her working with a student, you see how much pride they feel
when they succeed. Her work is very personal. On some level
every 12-year-old child is her son."
Through the years, Barr has taught both youth and adult b'nai
mitzvah students at Temple Israel, Temple Beth EA and, for the
past 15 years, at Shir Shalom. In the course of her career, her stu-
dents have included all seven of her own grandchildren.
Barr said when her eldest grandson, Miles Lakin of Southfield,
heard she planned to become a bat mitzvah, he returned the
appeal she used on him 28 years ago when she helped him prepare
for his bar mitzvah. "He teased me and said, 'Get out your book
and let me hear you,'" Barr said.
Generations Of Students
Barr's students include many who grew up to bring their own
children to her for lessons.
"People she once taught are always telling her, 'Keep teaching
— I have a kid coming up in three or four years,"' said Barr's