Kvelling Over Our Bat Mitzvah and her D’var Torah and our Amazing Community

Elizabeth at her final rehearsal before the big day.

As some of our readers know, the two portions of our year of travel are separated by a trip home to New Jersey to celebrate Elizabeth’s Bat Mitzvah. For those who don’t know, a child becomes a Bat Mitzvah (or, if a boy, a Bar Mitzvah) — literally, Daughter/Son of the Commandments — when s/he reaches the age of majority (technically 12 for girls, and 13 for boys). But in Jewish tradition, the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is celebrated by the new adult exercising one of their new rights — the right to be called to and to read from the Torah. In Orthodox tradition, this is an honor only available to boys, but this has been an egalitarian opportunity in the Reconstructionist, Reform, and Conservative movements for a couple of generations now (for instance, my grandparents were liberal Jews, but my aunt did not become a Bat Mitzvah in the late 1950s/early 1960s) although I became a Bat Mitzvah back in 1986.

Chanting Torah is tough: one has to know the Hebrew letters, and then read them without vowels or punctuation, along with the sometimes unusual spacing and the like used by Torah scribes. At our synagogue, the Bat Mitzvah reads from an approximately 250 year old Torah that survived the Holocaust and made it to our shul in 1977. Because we were traveling, Elizabeth began her prep with our synagogue’s wonderful cantor back in January of this year. Starting in June, he was wonderful about doing their tutoring sessions via FaceTime, even when we had to change them last minute because we didn’t have wifi or we’d forgotten about the time change or whatever!

Well, yesterday was the day, and as parents, Mike and I couldn’t be more proud of her hard work, her poise on the bimah, and the wonderful job she did leading our community in prayer, including chanting Torah and Haftorah (Torah is the 5 Books of Moses, and Haftorah is a reading from the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible).

One of the requirements at our synagogue is that the Bat Mitzvah write what’s called a D’var Torah, which is a speech/sermon interpreting the week’s Torah portion. Everyone had ideas for her — I had ideas for her, our rabbi had ideas for her, but Elizabeth came to us and told us that she had been thinking about her portion, and she had her own ideas of what she wanted to say. And so she did! After she got it all down on paper, I helped her to re-organize a bit, but the words and the ideas are her own. I couldn’t be prouder of her, and with her permission, I share the text of her D’var Torah here:

This week’s Torah portion is Tol’dot in the book of Genesis. In it, Isaac visits the land of Gerar and their king is a guy named Abimelech. When Isaac and his wife, Rebekah, arrive, Isaac tells Abimelech that Rebekah is his sister, even though she’s his wife. Why did Isaac say this to Abimelech? Isaac’s reason is that he was afraid to say Rebekah was his wife on the account that they would kill him because she was pretty. Hmph. One day Abimelech is looking out the window and sees Isaac fondling Rebekah. Abimelech is really confused. He confronts Isaac, and says,“Look-she must be your wife, so why’d you say she was your sister?” Then Isaac exclaims that he didn’t want to die because he had a pretty wife! Anyway, Abimelech gets kind of upset. He, Abimelech, then says something to the effect of, “What if one of my subjects had lain with her? We would have been guilty and suffered!” Abimelech waits for an answer but Isaac doesn’t respond. But then Abimelech forgives Isaac and says that anyone who touches him and Rebekah will be killed.

As a 13 year old feminist Jew, I read this story and thought: How does this make sense? How does this apply to me and my world? How does this help me to be a better person? What lessons am I supposed to learn from this? What’s wrong with Isaac that he was willing to let Rebekah be harassed — at the very least — because she’s pretty and he was too cowardly to say that she was his wife? Why does Isaac say it would be Rebekah’s fault if he died?

So I did what all 13 year old girls do when we’re confused by stories in the Torah: I talked to my rabbi. He said that now that I’m becoming a Jewish adult, I’m starting to realize that all the stories aren’t fun stories.

He suggested that perhaps there are times in life when none of the choices are good. Perhaps Isaac’s choice — cowardly as it seemed to me — was the only choice that seemed to leave both Isaac and Rebekah the possibility of surviving. I thanked my rabbi, but as I left I kept asking myself, “Where’s Rebekah’s voice in all of this? What does she think?”

These questions were too confusing, so I took a break by logging into the new Facebook account I recently got for my 13th birthday. But when I got to Facebook, all I was seeing were “me toos.” Those “me toos” really hit home. Almost all of the women and moms that I am Facebook friends with were saying “me too.” It was kinda scary. Lots of these women are people I look up to. I want to be like them, but I don’t want to be another woman saying “me too.”

As I thought about my story and the me toos, I wondered,“Would Rebekah have been just another woman saying ‘me too’?”

Yes, life was different in Biblical times, but it shouldn’t have ignored Rebekah’s point of view. More importantly, this portion shouldn’t be so timely now if it’s just about how society was back then. It’s been a year since I got my first phone — okay mom, yes, this is my third phone —but from the time I got my first phone, I turned my phone’s news alerts on. These days, my phone’s news alerts are constantly lighting up because of all of the accusations of sexual harassment and other disgusting behavior by famous people. Between Louis C. K., Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, and countless others, it’s hard not to see how our lives today relate to this portion. When Abimelech accuses Isaac of fondling Rebekah, he also asks what would have happen if one of his subjects had lain with her. Well, I expect that Rebekah would not have let that fly. We don’t know, however, because in the Torah, Rebekah doesn’t get a voice. It seemed like both Abimelech and Isaac assumed that Rebekah wouldn’t care about cheating on her husband. But what I want to know is – what did Rebekah think? I see this as an example of the Torah’s gender inequality. But that gender inequality isn’t something that’s just in the distant past. It’s in our face — and on our phones — all day, every day. The Torah isn’t the only thing riddled with gender inequality, our whole world is. Hashtags won’t change everything.

The difference, however, is that with these hashtags in 2017, women are telling their stories and using their voice. And perhaps telling their stories will help to make sure that by the time I’m my mom’s age, I won’t have my own “me too” stories.

That’s part of why I went to the Women’s March on Washington. I saw so much there that inspires me and helps me through the times when I think that my gender is a burden. Hashtags and marches alone can’t change everything, but they can show all of the Rebekahs in our world today that they are not alone.

So what can we do that is more than tweeting? How can you and I work together to make sure that I — and my little sister, and my neighbors, and my cousins, and my friends — won’t also grow up to find ourselves saying “me too”?

I think it starts with education. On the way home from the Women’s March, my mom and I had a talk about what sex and puberty education I’d gotten in school-and at the march. And the answer at that time — I was already 12 ¼ then — was I got more from the march than school, because at school I’d gotten none. So my mitzvah project became learning about what sex ed programs can and should be, and working with my mom on gathering stories about whether my experience of not getting sex ed in our public schools was common. It turned out that it was. So we got a meeting with someone in the Central Office of our schools and I got a chance to talk to her about what we hadn’t learned. Now the school district is making changes. They have a new health curriculum that they’re putting into place this year. I’m going to a public meeting about it after Thanksgiving. Supposedly all kids in our schools will get puberty and sex education much earlier. As a kid, my goal is to make sure that the school keeps its promises and does its job of educating all of us about puberty, sex education, consent, and creating a culture in which sexual harassment isn’t okay. Will you help to do your part so that my generation doesn’t also find ourselves saying “me too”?

What I learned from studying this Torah portion is that voices are important. Voices, knowledge, and accurate facts are the first steps we need to make the change we want to see in the world. This Torah portion taught me that issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality aren’t new — and we haven’t solved them yet either. But the Torah can at least inspire us to try.

Shabbat Shalom!

We then had a super-fun party afterward that included many members of the village of people in our lives who make it possible for us to parent our children as successfully as we can, including in particular, our adopted Jewish families, the Goren family and the Koppel family, as between them, they take us in for every holiday. We love them all dearly, and hold the many who couldn’t make it yesterday in our hearts as well.

We were fortunate that the party turned out so well! As of about three weeks ago, all we’d done was to send out invitations and book a caterer before we’d left (oh, and we knew that in the interest of keeping things simple, we’d throw the party in the synagogue’s social hall). So the past two weeks have been a blur of throwing a party for 150 people together! Again, this was with the help of our amazing community, who did everything from giving us a place to stay when our prior plans fell through (thanks Lisa and Stu) to lending us bowls for centerpieces they’d used at their own sons Bar Mitzvah’s (thanks Deb and Dave) to shopping for the centerpieces (the bowls were filled with food for donation to Toni’s Kitchen, a wonderful local organization working to eradicate hunger and food insecurity in our local community) (thanks Colleen and Cecelia) to helping pick from the menu possibilities (thanks Lynley) to watching my kid (thanks Sarah and Carlos) to helping us shop for outfits (thanks Quinn) to taking care of the candle lighting and aufruf candy (thanks to Elisa, Michelle, Melissa, Leslie, and the rest of the Squanties) to feeding us dinner last night when we were too tired to think straight (thanks Christine, Chuck, David, and Leslie) to accepting honors in the service (thanks Deb, Deborah, Lisa, Stu, Seth, Liana, Julianna, David, Leslie, Dylan, Allison, Ken, Beth, Maddy, Dani, and Elihu) and everyone else (I’m so sorry if I forgot someone) who contributed to making the day a success.

For the party, we decided that one of the things we’ve learned on this trip is to take to heart the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” So since we’re in New Jersey, we went full-Jersey for the after bash (with a DJ, Mark Klatsin of The Party Experts/Ultrax Entertainment, who along with his team did an amazing job of getting everyone from my aunts/uncles to the little kids engaged and dancing). It seemed like everyone really had a blast, and we loved party-rocking with our friends, family, neighbors, and community.

We couldn’t be more thankful for all of the family and friends in our lives who traveled from near and far to celebrate this special day in Elizabeth’s life. We also hold in our heart all who were with us in spirit, as well as those who should have been with us, if they hadn’t been taken from us too soon. But most of all, we are honored beyond our wildest dreams to be the parents to such a terrific young woman (as well as her wonderful sister). We are truly blessed.

Candle lighting with her sister.

Candle lighting with her three besties.

Candlelighting with her cousins on her dad’s side. We were so pleased they could join us for her big day — it was wonderful to have them there! (And if anyone has a photo of my mom’s side of the family at the Candlelighting, please send to me — I can’t find one on my camera, I don’t think).

My brother and his family along with my Aunt Jill.

More of our terrific family.

Some of our adopted Jewish family.

The best neighbors we could possibly ask for!

The Squanties!

The kids!

After four months without a shred of makeup, we cleaned up pretty nice!

It wouldn’t be a Bat Mitzvah without a Hora! The DJ did a lovely job by inviting people up to join based on how long they’d known Elizabeth (those who met her on her first day of life, in her first year of life, in her first three years, during elementary school, during middle school, all the way up to today).

Someone was a good sport for a party game!

The Squaunties who were able to attend in person. (The Squanties are my “Squad Sisters” — a group of friends who have each other’s backs through thick in thin — the three in the picture I’ve known since high school, and the other three are wonderful as well). Since they’re my “Squad Sisters” (that name just kind of happened, they then became the Squaunties to the kids).

Some of my family on my mom’s side — they aren’t Jewish, but they are certainly a big part of Elizabeth’s life, and we were lucky to have so many able to come celebrate with us.

Squauntie Selfie!

Dropping off donations at Toni’s Kitchen today.


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