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A Do-It-Yourself Bat Mitzvah

July 3, 2008

About four months before our daughter Rebecca turned 13, she announced that she wanted to have a bat mitzvah. Music to my ears!

My response was actually something like this: "Well, that sounds like a great idea. Let me think about it for a while. Let me think about how and where we would do this."

You see, we were an interfaith, albeit practicing, Jewish family without a home. We had no current membership with any of the synagogues in the area, and Rebecca hadn't attended religious school, nor had she had any Hebrew education, in over two years. Her desire to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah — an adult in the Jewish community — came about two years after we stopped attending Congregation Etz Chaim, a Reform synagogue in Lombard, Ill. Many a family talk took place the summer between fourth and fifth grade (when she became adamant about not attending religious school), including, "If you stop going now, you won't be able to have a bat mitzvah at this synagogue."

She said she didn't care. She said she didn't want to have a bat mitzvah.

Rachel and Rebecca Yackley
Rebecca leading the service while Rachel plays guitar.

I was a bit bummed out, but she was, and still is (at 15 years old) unwavering and very open about her identity as a Jew. That was good enough for me, especially as she was growing up with a Jewish mother and a Catholic father.

Then seemingly out of the blue she changed her mind. Tears came to my eyes. My heart trembled when I thought of how thrilled my mother was going to be when I gave her this wonderful news!

Even though we weren't part of Congregation Etz Chaim, Rebecca did feel she had a religious home — the one that we formed when she was about 10 years old. A small group of people in our community in Geneva, Ill. formed Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors. We have Jewish and interfaith participants of all ages, and host Sabbath services as well as religious, educational and fundraising events at least once a month. I lead most of our Shabbat and Havdalah services and am usually the song leader. Rebecca helps with services from time to time, too. Through this intimate community of Jewish and interfaith families, Rebecca' s interest in proclaiming her entrance into Jewish adulthood was ignited. It was this group with whom she wanted to share her special event.

It meant I had to organize a bat mitzvah with no congregation, no rabbi and no organizing committees. Everything was open, even what kind of service we would do and where we would hold it.

Rebecca determined that she wanted to stick with familiar prayers like those in our homemade prayer books we used on Friday nights at FVJN. She also wanted to include a Torah service, mostly because she wanted to honor close relatives by calling them up to the bima to recite the aliyot, the prayers said before and after each section of the Torah readings. From the Humanistic Jewish tradition, she chose to do a research project and she also wanted to do a mitzvah project — a social action effort, which is typically done when preparing to become a bat mitzvah.

The prayers in the service were mostly the same prayers we recite on Friday nights, which Rebecca already knew. We started meeting at the kitchen table once a week in March, five months before her bat mitzvah to go through the service prayer by prayer, page by page with me playing the guitar. By the time school got out the beginning of June, we upped that to twice a week, and by July, we were focusing on the more challenging parts, about three times a week. By the first week of August, she knew the service inside and out.

I have to admit that it wasn't all a bed of roses. I distinctly remember yelling something like, "If I was a rabbi, you wouldn't be struggling with me like this," when she didn't feel like practicing, or was getting frustrated and tired, then distracted or argumentative. But for the most part, we worked surprisingly well together.

The Torah portion for Rebecca's bat mitzvah was Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9). Rebecca' s Hebrew education was limited and I knew I couldn't teach her enough Hebrew to read the Torah. Instead we asked a favor of a family friend, Beth Kaplan, who had been studying Torah cantillation and could borrow a small Torah scroll from her synagogue, Congregation Sinai, in Wisconsin. For the service, Beth chanted the Torah portion, and Rebecca read the English. They alternated, providing the congregation with a coherent, cohesive translation of each section of the reading.

"I kind of wish I could have read the Torah," Rebecca recently said, "and I wish I hadn't had to read the transliterations in the prayer book."

Part of me feels badly that that piece was sacrificed, but when I responded with an offer to teach her to read Hebrew, she adamantly declined.

Along with sacrifices came the opportunity to do a significant piece we wouldn't have been able to do at our old synagogue: just before the Torah service, my husband Mike, who has always been involved with and supportive of Rebecca's Jewish education, got to participate in the handing down of the Torah. This was almost inexpressibly important to all three of us, and was one of the many emotional parts of the service.

Yackley Bat Mitzvah
Rachel kisses Rebecca while her dad Michael Yackley and friend Beth Kaplan look on.

For her research project, Rebecca researched and wrote a paper on the Girls' Orchestra of Auschwitz, which she shared with the congregation at the end of her service. For her mitzvah project, she volunteered at the Anderson Animal Shelter in South Elgin, Ill., where she helped take care of cats and dogs for several weeks. We also made centerpieces of cat treats and toys to decorate the tables at the afternoon's luncheon. These were later donated to the shelter.

All in all, the bat mitzvah was a success."I felt more accomplished for having done it," Rebecca said. "Now, after seeing other people's bar and bat mitzvahs, I led a lot more of the service. I really enjoyed doing it, and I really liked it that Grandma and Papa (my husband's father who died nine months later) were there."

For me, as her mother, her teacher and the service leader, there was a moment before the service which set the tone and carried us through the entire day. Just before we started the service, I took Rebecca aside and we sat on a couch in the hall behind the sanctuary. I held her hand and choking over my words, told her how very proud I was of her taking all this on, and working so hard to make it happen. She too got choked up, gave me a hug, and said, "I'm proud of you, too, mom."

One of 54 sections of the Torah read, during Shabbat services, in order on a weekly basis throughout the year. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "separation" or "distinction," the ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath on Saturday evenings. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. The plural version of the Hebrew word "aliyah." Meaning "going up," it refers to the honor of saying the blessing over the Torah reading. It can also refer to the act of immigrating to Israel. (e.g. "After falling in love with Jerusalem, Rachel and Christopher made aliyah.") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.
Rachel Baruch Yackley

Rachel Baruch Yackley is a freelance writer, nonprofit administrator, educator, mother and wife. For over 13 years, her articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. Rachel also leads services, song leads, teaches religious school and volunteers with Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors in Geneva, IL.

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