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The B’nei Mitzvah

            My first students ever in synagogue school are now old enough to be getting ready for their B’nei Mitzvah, the ritual celebration of leading a prayer service on turning thirteen to mark becoming a full member of the community. I haven’t seen much of these kinds so far this year, because they come to school just as I’m leaving for the day, so I only glimpse them here or there, or hear about them from their younger siblings. I don’t even know if they remember me (though, because they were my first class, they probably remember the candy I used to use to bribe them into paying attention). When I saw them last year, the boys still looked mostly the same and the girls looked ten years older, but I don’t know if they’ve changed in other ways: if they are calmer or angrier, sadder or happier, more cautious or more curious. I don’t know if they’ve learned everything they need to learn for their B’nei Mitzvah services or if they’re struggling. I don’t even know if they are still connected to each other the way they used to be or if they’ve grown apart.

            Last year, when I started to realize that this milestone was coming up, I had all kinds of plans to go to every single B’nei Mitzvah service, two and a half hours on consecutive Saturday mornings for months, to show my support (and not just to share in the snacks afterward). But now, because of my health, that doesn’t feel possible. The idea of getting up early enough to be at the synagogue by 9:45 AM, and standing and praying and socializing for hours, week after week, just seems so unlikely. But maybe I can make a commitment to go to each of their Friday Night services in person, instead of just on Zoom.

“But I love watching on Zoom!”

            At our synagogue, we start celebrating the B’nei Mitzvah at the communal Friday night services the night before the big day, where the kids lead a few important prayers and tell us about their mitzvah (service) projects, like walking dogs at the local animal shelter, or raising money for school supplies for underprivileged kids, or coaching developmentally disabled kids in soccer, or anything else that interests them and feels doable for a thirteen year old, with some help. The parents also go up and tell us about their children through a collection of books they’ve chosen as gifts – books connected to both being Jewish and loving sports, or cooking, or history, or art, or theater. It’s a chance for the rest of the community to celebrate with the family, and get to know them better, especially if we’ve never met them before.

“So where are my books?”

            Right now, though, even that commitment feels like more than I can handle. But it’s really important to me to be there, in person, where my former students can see me, and their other teachers, and know that we care about them and their journeys and their futures. I remember my own Bat Mitzvah so vividly and how most of my religious classmates couldn’t be there because it was on Shabbat and they couldn’t travel. And I remember how the rabbis at my orthodox Jewish day school disapproved of a girl leading services at all. It would have been so validating to have had all of those people there in the room with me, to see what I’d accomplished and to see what I could become. It would have meant the world to me.

            So I have until March to figure out how to make those Friday nights possible. Maybe some of my upcoming doctor visits will lead to progress in my health, or if that doesn’t pan out, maybe I can just plan to rest all day on Fridays, with no errands, no appointments, and no lesson planning, in order to have energy left at the end of the day to get to the synagogue in person. Wish me luck!


If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

37 responses »

  1. There is a lot to learn about growing up. This is a good first step but there is so much more ahead. That’s so great that you are helping these kids.

  2. good luck I hope you can make it happen!

  3. I do hope you find the strength to do this, as it seems like something that would be very meaningful and satisfying for you.

  4. I feel like going will be extremely rewarding to you. I hope very hard you are able to do it.

  5. I do wish you luck, and I love your heart in this. I also think a thoughtful note to each would be enough, all things considered 🤗

  6. Young people achieving such an important milestone are an inspiration to all. I hope your health improves so you can take part in this celebration.

  7. Wishing you luck and better health! I love your dedication to your students.

  8. Wishing you loads of luck and better health.

  9. Fingers crossed for you and your Fridays!

  10. I hope that you can be there. The youth of today really need encouragement, and support. I will be praying for your health. Thank you for caring about them.

  11. I hope you make it! I think it is wonderful of you to want to support your students this way.

  12. Good luck. Perhaps if you aren’t able to make it you can send a card explaining. Letting the person know that you would love to be there but that your health is keeping you from being there but they are in your thoughts and you are supporting them from afar . . . ? To me just knowing you were thinking about being there and trying to be there would mean a lot. Make it to those you can make it to and when you can’t send an explanation.

  13. It sounds exhausting to do that every Saturday morning. It’s the socialising which would do my head in.

  14. Given reality, you may not get to all of them. Perhaps you can get to at least one or two. A letter from you would be a good acknowledgment for how far they have come.

  15. It’s frustrating when chronic health issues hold us back. I hope you can find a way to show your support for these kids while taking care of yourself.

  16. I love that service and books are given spotlights 🙂
    Good luck!

  17. Good luck on those students of yours, Rachel. Would that all teachers were so supportive. I know how frustrating it is to really want to do something but your body is preventing you. 😦

    Oh, and also, I love how you love your doggies. Your real family, and the (real) reason I read the cricket pages. 🙂

  18. I love that you get to see these young people reach this milestone! Virtually or no. And I’m sorry to hear about your health–I must have missed a post on that. Please take care of yourself!

  19. You are a marvelous teacher to care so much no matter how physically possible or impossible that it. God bless you.


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