CONNECTING TO THEIR JUDAISM — 6,000 MILES FROM HOME
Aug 12, 2022 The JUF Magazine
By Jim Rosenberg
Israeli shinshinim experience American-style bat mitzvah in Chicago
“I saw that reading from the Torah is not just for boys, and I could be a part of it, too.”
This quote could have been attributed to Judith Kaplan, who 100 years ago became the first American girl to have a bat mitzvah.
But it was actually said by one of the six young Israeli women — Tamar Talyosef — who celebrated their own group bat mitzvah here in Chicago, which took place during their pre-army year of service in our community.
As members of the Shinshinim — an emissary program of the Jewish Agency for Israel and coordinated locally by The iCenter — these women (along with six young men) volunteered in our local Jewish day schools and public schools where Hebrew is taught, and they spent the summer at Jewish camps, teaching students in grades K-12 about Israel, Hebrew, and their lives back home. Our family of five, including our three daughters, was fortunate to be a host family and we learned so much from our Israeli guest.
But something unexpected happened to our “fourth daughter” and the other shinshiniot (the feminine form of shinshinim) along the way. Through their taste of American Jewish life, the shinshiniot learned about themselves, their own Jewish identities (a reverse Birthright of sorts), and the range of opportunities for Jewish women, especially in the United States.
And while a bat mitzvah was not something anyone planned for at the beginning of the year, the idea grew out of organic dinner table conversation between our shinshin Tamar and my wife Deborah. It then expanded to reflect the desire among she and her friends to learn more. They came away with a memorable experience that became part of who they are as Jews, just as Kaplan did a century ago.
Hosted by Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow and Shir Hadash Synagogue in Wheeling on a Shabbat morning this past spring, the six shinshiniot chanted from the Torah, sang songs, and reflected on what the day and this past year have meant to them. Their Chicago host families, friends, and Israeli families came together in person and on Zoom, creating a binational gathering. When the service was over, we all danced the hora , adding another tradition not typical for girls in their Israeli communities.
As a proud host dad, the morning for me was full of joy and spirit. Being led by Rabbi Reni Dickman, the first woman to head the Chicago Board of Rabbis, who studied with the Shinshiniot during their preparation, added another layer of meaning.
Their own words spoken that morning capture better than I ever could the impact of their American experience and why they decided to have a bat mitzvah–and, perhaps, suggest a model for how our Israeli and American Jewish communities can learn from each other in the future:
“I think that every bat mitzvah is special. But ours is more special because we are celebrating as 19-year-olds. We chose this because we really know it is important, we worked hard to learn, and we really wanted to do it.”
“As Shinshiniot in Chicago, we got the opportunity to learn the culture and the traditions from a different place than our home in Israel. During this year we also became a part of a community, and our bat mitzvahs feel like another step that makes us feel even more included.”
“Today I have a new feeling…I had a bat mitzvah in Israel, but a different kind of bat mitzvah — no aliyah l’Torah. Today feels like a new experience, a chance to do something interesting, something I am trying, and one of the goals of this year is to say ‘yes’ to new things.”
“I came to this year as a Shinshin expecting to have a new perspective. I knew that I would represent Israelis and I thought that I would discover more about my relationship with Israel, but not necessarily about my relationship with Jews. In Israel, I am very secular. Coming here to Chicago this year, I have found a new relationship with Judaism that I didn’t expect.”
“The idea of having a bat mitzvah came when my host mom found out that I did not have a bat mitzvah service [in Israel]. At first the idea seemed very unusual to me. But I went to amazing services, including my 13-year-old host cousin’s bat mitzvah, and the more I thought about it, the more that I wanted to do it — especially with my friends. It is not an opportunity that girls in Israel usually have. I never felt connected to Judaism, but when I came here, I saw that there is another part of Judaism that I didn’t see in Israel.”
“One thing I learned this year is that in America you need to choose to be Jewish. Having a bat mitzvah is making this choice. It is very special to have this experience, and we want to say thank you to everyone and to the community.”