Feature Stories

Finding her voice – Northampton teen does bat mitzvah her way

Photos and story by Shana Sureck

NORTHAMPTON – Sarina Hahn, of Northampton, wasn’t trying to opt out of a bat mitzvah when she proposed to her parents a hike to a mountaintop for a small ceremony, some Torah study and a communal conversation with a dozen of their closest family friends about becoming an adult in Judaism.

Nor was she rebelling against her faith and its institutions. The Williston 7th grader who loves art, music and soccer, said, “I knew I wanted to do something really meaningful. My biggest thing was wanting to have it outside because being in nature is where I’ve always felt more connected to G-d and to oneness.”

“My daughter is a nonconformist,” Sharon Saline, a local psychologist, says, quickly adding “in the best sense of the word.” A founding member of Beit Ahavah, the Reform Synagogue of Greater Northampton, she wanted initially to say to her daughter, ‘can’t you be a compliant child?’ but with a roll of her eyes, she knew the impossibility of that. And she couldn’t argue with her daughter’s connection to the Divine outdoors.

Sharon explained, “I couldn’t argue because I feel the same way. When I went to URJ Camp Harlam in the 70s, it was the days of Debbie Friedman and Shalom Rav (Jeff Klepper), when the Reform movement was opening up post hippie culture. On Friday night and Saturday mornings, we sang a lot and our services were outside in this gorgeous open air. Those were my favorite services of all times because, like my daughter when I’m outside I feel closest to G-d.”

Sarina had a choice to make: she could explore her own evolving notion of becoming bat mitzvah, or she could pursue a synagogue service at Beit Ahavah like her older brother Jonah did in 2007.

“I’m not afraid of a challenge,” she said, knowing which path she was going to take.

As to the mountaintop ceremony, there was a quick veto. Her grandparents couldn’t make the hike, her father, Kenneth Hahn, firmly believed it was important to read from the Torah, and her mother was strong in her belief that it would hurt too many people’s feelings who would be excluded. As founding members of Beit Ahavah, they wrestled with wanting to help their daughter realize her dreams, but also wanted her to consider compromise, not as a sacrifice, but as a way of making it a family rite of passage.

Their rabbi, Riqi Kosovske, worked with them and encouraged Sarina to find her voice in the service, but couldn’t officiate at the backyard bat mitzvah. Like other congregational rabbis in the area, she is bound to only officiate bar or bat mitzvahs of congregants within her synagogue’s sanctuary service.

The reasons for this are many, but revolve around the importance of community in becoming a bar and bat mitzvah. As CBI rabbi Rabbi Justin David explained, “I don’t begrudge a family for trying to express their joy in a way that’s most meaningful to them, but as the saying goes ‘to raise a Jewish child it takes a village.’” For congregational rabbis, that village is where the whole community can share in the coming-of-age celebration.

“We seeing a growing number of people,” continues Rabbi David, “most of them who are unaffiliated, choosing to have bar and bat mitzvahs by themselves, and I think it’s a loss for both the family and the larger Jewish community. The way we grow is not by having more members, but by having people join us who can give us a new chapter in our collective story.”

The issue, of course, is not always black and white, because there are many ways to be Jewish and to be in community, but it’s a topic of ongoing discussion and concern. Synagogues know that a “one size fits all” ceremony isn’t going to work and are adapting by allowing – to greater and lesser extents – bar and bat mitzvah students flexibility and creative means of self-expression.

When Rabbi Nancy Flam, Co-Director of Programs at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, was asked if it should be of concern to synagogues that some young men and women might choose an alternative to a traditional bar/bat mitzvah, Nancy said, “I don’t think it’s worrisome. The most important thing is that they work with a spiritual leader, that they’re part of a community, that they know their tradition, and that they get support for wrestling with the meaningfulness of that tradition.” Like everyone at Sarina’s bat mitzvah, she was moved by the young woman’s determination and passion.

For over a year, Sarina worked with tutor and educator Judi Wisch. “She was my spiritual guide.” Together, they engaged in the meaningful work of all bar and bat mitzvah preparation: they worked on Hebrew, chanting, the d’var Torah, and the prayers. Page by page they constructed a siddur (prayerbook), that included drawings Sarina made, poems that echoed the content of the Hebrew prayers, and explanations for guests as to the meaning of the prayers. Sarina prepared four short d’vars (sermons) that she read before each section of her Torah reading.

In keeping with her love of music, her tikkun olam project was to fundraise for Heartbeat Jerusalem (www.heartbeatjerusalem.org), a Washington DC and Jerusalem based organization that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians who use music to build understanding and transform conflict. The $2,500 she raised will allow for 5 teen performances in Jewish and Arab communities.

Heavy rains of Biblical proportion fell for days heading up to the mid-October bat mitzvah. The tent constructed in the backyard flooded and even with 15 bales of hay was a muddy mess. Kenneth and Sharon still shudder when thinking about the logistics of the day. As luck would have it, the first sun in ten days broke through the clouds just hours before the service started and there was a mad dash in the wee hours of the morning to set up chairs in a cozy circle on the deck.

The temperatures were balmy and the burning bush behind the makeshift bimah was a fiery red as Sarina sang, played guitar with her tutor Judi, and read from the Torah.

Her parents and her brother offered words of love and praise. Her father raised his hands to form the priestly sign of blessing as he spoke the words he speaks to both his children every night at bedtime: “May G-d bless you and keep you, may G-d’s countenance shine on you and may G-d grant you the most precious gift of all, the gift of peace.”

As the lyrics to Bob Marley’s Redemption Song augmented the Mi Chamocha prayer, Sarina stood near strong women leaders of the Jewish community – Rabbi Flam, Felicia Sloin, who added drums, guitar and her extraordinary voice, Judi Wisch and Rabbi Kosovske, who offered a teaching and a blessing at the end of the service as she called up Sarina’s peers and friends to hold a tallis canopy over Sarina’s head.

“A bar or bat mitzvah may or may not transport you to the moon, unless you realize the moon is right here,” Rabbi Kosovske offers. Knowing what an important step it is to becoming part of a community and the formation of lifelong Jewish identity, she adds “When you touch and read from the Torah and tell us how you’ve wrestled to make its meaning profoundly relevant to life today, the community sees you differently and you take a new place within that community.”

“It was perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing,” Sarina says.

“My relationship with Judaism grew and deepened. I know that where I sit as a Jew may not be the standard, whatever that is, but I feel comfortable and proud to be a Jew. I feel closer to myself and really got to explore my identity and how deeply Judaism is a part of that.” Her advice to others her age starting out on the journey of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah: “Before others try to influence you and tell you what a bar or bat mitzvah is supposed to be, check in with yourself and figure out what’s important to you and what would be meaningful in this experience of becoming an adult. “

Shana Sureck (www.shanasureck.com) is an award-winning photojournalist with 20 years of newspaper experience. Now, as a freelance photographer with studios in Western MA and CT, she specializes in bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and other life celebrations. 


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