One Family’s Bat Mitzvah Story

By Helen Belitsky


A tallit (prayer shawl), its blue stripes faded, its silk yellowed with age, preserved for three generations in a simple plastic bag, traveled recently from Istanbul to a congregation in Maryland. The tallit, belonging to Albert Gabbay, was donned by his son, Moris, who had never worn a tallit or prayed before. The occasion was his granddaughter Rachel’s Bat Mitzvah, when she accepted the privileges and responsibilities of an adult member of the Jewish community, at Temple Adat Shalom in Rockville, Maryland.

The story behind the event marked a family’s journey into Judaism, sparked by eight-year-old Rachel’s desire to belong and a synagogue’s commitment to teaching and to creating community out of diverse practices.

Rachel’s father, Altan, was a non-practicing Jew, born into a family where Judaism had stopped with his grandfather. Her mother, Ruth Poulin, was a confirmed Episcopalian. They belonged to no specific religious community. At Adat Shalom, the family found its religious home; and the fringes of the tallit, which had taken its own journey through the generations, from Istanbul to Washington, symbolically bound four generations of a family together.

When Rachel Gabbay was eight years old, she, her mother, and her Turkish-born dad traveled to Istanbul to attend the Bar Mitzvah celebration of the grandson of Altan’s father’s childhood friend. When the family returned home, Rachel turned to her parents across the dinner table one evening with a request: “I want a Bar Mitzvah.” She even knew which Hebrew school she wanted to attend–one that her school friend Danny told her about as he taught her the Hebrew letters he was learning.

Looking back now, Rachel says simply, “I wanted to be a part of something.”

When her parents agreed to a Bat Mitzvah for Rachel, they committed themselves to a monumental change in family life: synagogue membership. The synagogue they joined, Adat Shalom, encouraged family education as a guarantee of Jewish continuity. The whole family was to learn about Judaism and become part of a community at the same time.

Family education, a growing phenomenon across the country in religious and day schools, is intended to empower families to take charge of their own Jewish lives, one step at a time. A child’s Jewish education, it asserts, is only meaningful if it is reinforced by the home. Says Vicky Kelman, director of the Jewish Family Education Project in San Francisco, who helped pioneer the concept, “Family education is the creation of a Jewish experience that the nuclear family can share and at the same time feel part of a community.”

Rachel’s father, beset with doubts about finding a place in the synagogue, says his leftist upbringing preached that religion stood in the way of social justice. Rachel’s mother had her own conflicts.

“What made Judaism possible for us,” says Poulin, Rachel’s mother, “was education through the Adat Shalom community.”

For family education to be good, says Kelman, “it should have serious, mind-engaging content; it should build not only knowledge but connections to other families, and it should be an invitation to extend the knowledge to home practice.”

Every program at Adat Shalom meets these criteria.

Altan Gabbay’s education began with his daughter. “I’d ask her what she was learning,” he recalls, “and I realized if I wanted to be of help to her and to myself, I had to do it as part of a community. I found her Hebrew storybooks interesting, and she taught me the alphabet. I began to take Hebrew with a member of the congregation who offered it free of charge.

“Rachel made up special worksheets,” added Poulin, “and graded her dad.”

Intensive educational programs appealed to the family because of their scope and their depth. The synagogue’s “Torah University” featured seminars on Torah cantillation (chanting), mezuzah-making [a mezuzah, a vessel containing the handwritten text of the Sh’ma prayer, is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes], the Sh’ma prayer, the Torah service, Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and ritual through Jewish music.

“To spend an afternoon learning about the havdalah (Saturday night ritual marking the end of the Sabbath) ceremony,” says Poulin, “including practicing the songs, took the mystery out of being Jewish without separating the ritual from its intrinsic meaning. We began to sing the havdalah at home, with Rachel and I playing our violins.” Family day at the Hebrew school, a shared learning program, had children and parents reading the same three books and meeting to discuss them.

Adat Shalom uses every opportunity to teach Judaism, the family asserts. Discussion at synagogue services is interactive, with Rabbi Fred Dobb connecting the weekly Torah portion to community and world events. “When we think of the parsha, the portion, in terms of our own lives, it give us a special ownership, says Poulin. “Shabbat (Sabbath) potluck dinners, celebrated at the homes of different members, built friendships for us as well as for Rachel, who got to know her friends’ parents.”

Altan Gabbay, fearful of the exclusiveness religion represented to him, found that at Adat Shalom the concept of the “chosen people” was removed not only from the liturgy, but from personal attitudes as well. Wherever the family found itself in observance was acceptable. “At each point,” says Poulin, “when we were ready to move into a different level of practice, we were surrounded by whatever we needed to learn.”

Leaving behind the distractions of everyday life, families at Adat Shalom bond by celebrating Shabbat at synagogue family retreats. It was at the second family retreat, in l999, six months after joining the synagogue, that Poulin decided to convert. Dancing with l50 friends on Friday evening at a spot overlooking the Virginia mountains, Poulin said to herself, “This feels so right, as if all my life I didn’t fit. This is me.”

For a year and a half, guided by Rabbi Fred Dobb, Poulin’s wide-ranging course of study for her conversion served as a study blueprint for her husband, too. “Conversion meant learning for both of us,” he says, “with a whole congregation of friends to discuss things with.” Poulin’s conversion became final the week before Rachel’s Bat Mitzvah. “Rachel connected the past and the present for us,” says her mom, “bringing together family we hadn’t seen in years.” At the synagogue, from within the plastic where it had been carefully preserved, emerged her great-grandfather’s tallit, and with it, symbolically, the resurrected traditions of the past.


About Helen Belitsky

Helen Belitsky is a freelance writer based in Maryland.