At 88, Benator is Finally a Bat Mitzvah
SimchasBat Mitzvah

At 88, Benator is Finally a Bat Mitzvah

The ceremony at Huntcliff Summit in Sandy Springs comes as the culmination of a lifetime of community service.

Grace Benator celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Huntcliff Summit on Oct. 20.
Grace Benator celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at Huntcliff Summit on Oct. 20.

For most Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, the coming-of-age ceremony is a partial introduction to service in the Jewish philanthropic community. There is usually a project that the young person creates that is tied to bettering the world in some way.

But, for Grace Benator, who recently celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at the age of 88, the ceremony at Sunrise at Huntcliff Summit in Sandy Springs was a reversal of the process. For Benator, the religious service at the senior community on Roswell Road came as the crowning achievement of decades of service and philanthropy.

She grew up in the Sephardic congregation, Or Ve Shalom, which is now located in the Druid Hills neighborhood, just west of the massive new Emory Children’s Hospital and health campus off I-85. But when she was born in the 1930s, it was still the center of a community in the south end of the city by Jews who, like her parents, were mostly immigrants from Turkey and the Isle of Rhodes in the Mediterranean. [She spent a dozen years in the synagogue’s Sunday School but had only two years of Hebrew school. Until about 20 years ago, the traditional congregation didn’t allow young women to become Bat Mitzvahs.

But this year on Oct. 20, she stood before a standing room only audience at a Friday night service that included about 20 of her own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She spoke about her own interpretation of the spiritually righteous life of Noah and about her lifelong desire to celebrate her spiritual coming of age after all these years.

When famed Sephardic anthropologist Ruth Behar visited Congregation Or Ve Shalom, Grace Benator was one of the tour guides.

“I have always wanted to be a Bat Mitzvah,” she said, “not because of the many presents you receive, but so I could be a greater participant in the service.”

As Grace Levy, an 18-year-old slender, blonde beauty, she caught the eye of Asher Benator, a smart, ambitious young entrepreneur, who like herself was Sephardic, and had a deep commitment to the Atlanta Jewish community.

He later became president of Congregation Or Ve Shalom and was always on call to work on the latest project at the congregation. He was largely responsible for raising the money to build the synagogue’s present, handsome sanctuary. Asher Benator also led the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta; and a few years before he passed in 2013, his name went up on the large plaque in the Federation Spring Street lobby honoring him as one of the community’s most important benefactors.

Grace was president of the Sisterhood and has remained active over the years in the group. She and her husband’s names stretch across one wall near the entrance to the synagogue to honor them for a fundraiser that led to the donation of a new Torah scroll. Their names are also on a performing arts building at the MJCCA’s Camp Barney Medintz.

When the famous Sephardic anthropologist, Ruth Behar, visited Atlanta several years ago Grace was one of her tour guides at the synagogue. Today, Grace serves as president of the Huntcliff Summit Jewish Residents Association.

She is also still very much a presence in the life of the synagogue. Each Tuesday, she drives herself to the religious center’s kitchen to join the “boureka ladies.” It’s a dedicated group of volunteers who meet each week to create the thousands of sweet and savory Sephardic pastries that are sold at the synagogue’s annual Chanukah bazaar.

Grace Benator (left) is among the women who show up each Tuesday at Congregation Or Ve Shalom to make Sephardic pastries called bourekas for the synagogue’s annual fundraiser.

During the bazaar earlier this month, she was volunteering once again, collecting raffle tickets at the fundraiser, which attracted one of its largest crowds ever.

In standing before all her friends and family to observe the religious ritual, she reminded them that in the last two years she has been called to the Torah twice.

“Along with this Bat Mitzvah I now feel, finally, a part of these religious services. I also want to reaffirm my commitment to Judaism.”

But she also pointed out it was not just for herself that she was doing this. It was also for her daughter, Michelle, one of the twins that were her first born but who stood apart and separate from her twin brother when, like so many men in the congregation, he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah many years ago. To ease her disappointment at the time, her parents, Grace and Asher, bought her a beagle puppy.

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