Lily’s Bat Mitzvah

By Daniel Bender


To tell you about Lily’s Bat Mitzvah (ceremony in which person accepts the privileges and obligations of an adult Jew), I need to start with a word about Honolulu and its Jewish community. We are 860,000 people on the island of Oahu, with as many as 10,000 Jews in five congregations–two Reform temples, a Conservative Shul, the Aloha Jewish Chapel, and Chabad. The majority of the populace of the island is Asian: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, etc. The minority group is Caucasian. And about a third of the island is “blended,” with offspring representing some of the most beautiful children anywhere in the world.

Jews first came to Hawaii in the 1800s as traders, bringing with them a Torah (now in the possession of Temple Emanu-El). No one really knows how it passed from the estate of King David Kalakaua to the temple, but we call it the “Kalakaua Torah” and it reminds us that Hawaii’s Jews are a respected part of the local community. As the saying goes, “we are as local as everyone else, only more so.”

Jewish events in Hawaii always include family, friends, and neighbors. We share our lifecycle ceremonies with everyone, as they share theirs with us. There is no specific Jewish neighborhood: Jews live all over the island. It is common to have a multi-ethnic child in our School of Jewish Studies who identifies as a Jew and also as Japanese, Chinese, English, etc.

Lily Some Bender, my daughter, is that kind of person, having an American-Japanese mother, Valerie Hashimoto, who is a fourth generation “local”; and a Caucasian father, myself, who came to Honolulu to be a Jewish educator. Lily got her Hebrew name “Lilach” at Temple Emanu-El in Beverly Hills, California, and her Japanese name “So-me” at the same service. So-me was one of our first Japanese relatives to come to Honolulu around 1890.

Honolulu is our home and we go to all of its five Jewish congregations. Lily has been a camper at Camp Swig/Newman for four summer sessions, and is a madrichah (helper) in our religious school.

Lily’s Bat Mitzvah was quite an event. We mailed a total of 250 invitations. We followed the Honolulu ceremony with an aliyah (going up to say a blessing over the Torah) at Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pennsylvania, where my dad lived. This allowed our Pennsylvania family to be included. Both invitations had the same cover design, with the words “Mohala ka pua, ua wehe kaiao,” which translates as, “The blossoms are opening for dawn is breaking.” This Hawaiian saying is a reference to youth from Proverbs and Poetical Sayings by Mary Kawena Pukui, the Eleizer ben Yehudah [“father” of modern Hebrew] of the Hawaiian Language.

The Honolulu reception included Jews and non-Jews in a vegetarian meal made up of local favorites: dim sum, look funn noodles (for long life), vegetarian bao; an ear-splitting concert of Japanese taiko drummers; and flower leis for our out-of-town guests. By contrast, at the Philadelphia reception we ate lox, cream cheese, white fish and bagels at my sister’s house after a Thanksgiving Day minyan (quorum of ten Jews needed to read from the Torah) at Temple Sinai, one of the best daily minyans in the Philadelphia area.

One of our friends pointed out to us that we had created a ceremony in Philadelphia to honor the past and a ceremony in Honolulu that looked to the future. The Philadelphia minyan included my dad and my brother, and honored my family. The Honolulu service was made up of the community of my daughter’s friends, our local family, and temple congregants. I felt that we had created two complementary ceremonies reflecting the strength of our cultures, strong family ties, allegiance to the past, and a commitment to the future through positive identification.

The two events tell a single tale of what it is like to honor ethnic and religious heritages both in Hawaii and in Philadelphia. Making this link was important for our family, but even more important for our daughter Lily. Lily tends to be positive about hula, Camp Swig, outrigger canoe paddling, the Japanese language, and Temple Emanu-El onegs (the celebration part of a religious event). We believe that our emphasis on the celebration of shared cultural events enhances our commitment to Judaism and family life. We practice both Reform and Conservative Judaism by going to Temple Emanu-El for Sunday school, Sof Maarav for Saturday minyan, and the Aloha Jewish Chapel for Kabbalat Shabbat (the welcoming of the Sabbath).

When you are in town, please give us a call and we will meet you at services and share oneg Shabbat with you. Hach’nasat Orichim (inviting guests to share a Shabbat or religious experience) is a “local” Hawaiian tradition we practice as a positive mitzvah (commandment).


About Daniel Bender

Daniel Bender earned two masters' degrees--one in Public Finance from USC, and one in Hebrew Education from the Rhea Hirsch School of Education--and works at Honolulu Hale (City Hall) as a Budget Analyst, and at Temple Emanu-El as a Hebrew Teacher. Lily Bender is now a senior at Iolani School.