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.
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.
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?