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Bat Mitzvah After All These Years

June 1, 2009

When I was 13 my best friend from cheder (Sunday morning Hebrew school) celebrated her bat mitzvah. I wasn't envious of the presents or the party, but when she stood up in front of us all and claimed her right to be treated as an adult in the eyes of the congregation I felt a pinch in my heart--I wanted that too.

I even considered preparing for bat mitzvah for a while but reality soon took hold. My father was a full member of our Conservative congregation and they grudging allowed me to be considered a member as well. But they were so insistent that my mother, the non-Jewish part of our interfaith family, could never be a member she felt totally alienated and rarely entered the synagogue. And despite my friend's kind assistance with learning the Shema and other basic prayers I could barely find my way around the prayer book and my Hebrew was pitiful. The thought of such an inept outsider as me celebrating her bat mitzvah was, frankly, preposterous.

Shchory bat mitzvah
Esther Shchory at her bat mitzvah.

Today, 24 years later, I'm married to an Israeli and the mother of two Israeli children.

When my husband and I were expecting our first child, we decided that we needed to find a religious framework for our children. We found it in our local Reform synagogue. Even though the Reform movement confirmed my right of patrimonial descent I spent some time studying with a rabbi and underwent a conversion.

We both felt at home in the Reform movement and soon we were attending services every Friday night and on the holidays. I became an active volunteer at our synagogue and served as a board member.

At seminars and conferences I revelled in communal prayers and study sessions. But when I was called to the Torah and wrapped the tallit around my shoulders I realised that I needed more. I still yearned to declare my Jewish maturity in front of my friends and family. And I felt an urgent need to do so before my own daughter became bat mitzvah, not just to honour the logical, chronological order but because I felt that I should set an example by openly displaying our commitment to our congregation and Reform Judaism. On the other hand, I was a full grown adult: having a bat mitzvah seemed a little silly and self indulgent.

I confided my desire for a bat mitzvah to a close friend and when another member of the congregation mentioned that she too wished to celebrate her bat mitzvah my friend suggested we talk.

As we stood around after services discussing adult bat mitzvah it became clear that several of us were interested in such a ceremony. These women's enthusiasm and confidence assured me that my desire for a bat mitzvah was no trivial whim.

Eventually four of us organised ourselves into a group. During several months we met together sometimes with the rabbi and sometimes on our own. We practised singing together and soon discovered that the readings we knew so well became strange and unfamiliar when we had to read them ourselves. We received help from husbands, colleagues and other members of the congregation. We encouraged one another to persevere, discussed various points of faith, practicalities of kashrut and compared traditional tunes for the blessings.

My parents were delighted at the thought of my bat mitzvah. My husband was supportive but, like my secular in-laws and the friends I invited who were not part of our congregation, he was quite bemused by the whole concept of an adult bat mitzvah.

On the Friday of our bat mitzvah we joined the rabbi in welcoming Shabbat. The congregation sang with us and chanted in unison with our readings. After the Kiddush everyone congratulated us and wished us well for our Torah reading on Shabbat morning.

Saturday morning I woke bright and early, a jumble of nerves and excitement. We got to the hall early and my friends and family eagerly assisted us in preparing the buffet for after the service. The hall became more and more full and even with an extra row added at the front some of the late comers had to stand in the back.

And then the four of us stood together beside the bima and said the blessing as we wrapped ourselves in our tallitot. The other ladies had borrowed their tallitot from husbands or other male family members. Neither my husband or my father owned a tallit so as my bat mitzvah present my husband gave me a tallit hand-decorated by a local artisan with Stars of David symbolic of my combined commitment to Zionism and Judaism.

As we made our way through the service my prayerbook became impossibly heavy in my hands. My stomach was cramped with emotion and anticipation and I felt a little light headed. When my father made his aliyah I could see there were tears in his eyes.

Finally it was my turn. I stood in front of the scrolls, swathed in my talit, with the rabbi and my bat mitzvah sisters on either side. I faced my congregation and as I sang my Torah portion, my voice a little wobbly with emotion, I truly became bat mitzvah.

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." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Plural form of "tallit," Hebrew for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A form of nationalism of Jews and Jewish culture that supports a Jewish nation state in territory defined as the Land of Israel. Hebrew for "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 "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. 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. Hebrew for "hear," the first word and name of the central Jewish prayer and statement of faith. 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.

Esther Shchory Esther Shchory grew up in England as a Jew in an interfaith family. She nows lives a Jewish life with her husband and children in Israel while being in almost daily contact with her parents.

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