I had already read my Torah portion; now it was my dad’s turn to speak. We had rented a small, historic synagogue in Rosh Pina, Israel, for a private bat mitzvah ceremony. Well, sort of.
“At first, the story I’m about to tell seems unrelated to Ariel’s Bat Mitzvah,” my dad began. “But bear with me.
“In the late 1800s, the Romanian Jews were victims of pogroms, blood libel accusations, and general religious persecution. Some saw an option for freedom: immigration. So a small group of them traveled to the Holy Land. They made their way to Safed and later eighteen of them trekked on foot here, to Rosh Pina, carrying canoes above their heads. And only here were they able to begin again; to raise their children without the shadow of religious oppression. They named this village Rosh Pina, meaning cornerstone in Engl–” My dad was mid-gesture when three heavy knocks sounded on the synagogue’s back door. My parents turned towards the sound. I tried to look forward, maintaining my focus on my dad’s speech. The knocks grew louder. My dad heard them, but he remained focused on his speech; he had a message to deliver.
“In fact, when the Romanian Jews built this synagogue, they embedded parts of those original canoes right up there,” my dad said, then motioned towards the ceiling of the synagogue. We all looked up at the blue visage above. The knocks grew louder. “Our family has a similar story,” my dad continued. “In the late 70s, we escaped the USSR’s religious persecution by immigrating to our very own sanctuary: New York. Though we didn’t carry canoes with us on our journey to America, immigration wasn’t easy. We arrived with no knowledge of English, no relatives, and nowhere to stay. We faced poverty, xenophobia, and my dad worked 36-hour taxi shifts. But we persevered. We knew that America would bear opportunities for future gener–”
More knocks sounded on the door, escalating in volume. They emanated from the main door, directly behind me. I twirled the fringe on my tallit as the frustrated congregation shifted to face the door. The knocks subsided.
“We are all witness to a historic event today: Ariel is the first girl to become a bat mitzvah in this synagogue.” “Mazal tov!” came the cry from the congregation: seven family members, our rabbi, a guide, a photographer and his assistant. The knocks returned, but they seemed to have traveled behind me to my left. Finally, I turned to look. I saw him move past the window, to the very edge. Then the door to the women’s section of the synagogue flew open.
A large, bearded man wearing a kippah barreled toward us, barking in Hebrew. I tugged on my dad’s sleeve. My dad approached him, hand outstretched, but the intruder shoved his hand aside and marched up to his face. He had switched to English, now chanting, “You have disgraced this holy place!”
My grandfather rushed to our side, trying to mediate. My younger brother began to cry. My mom slid her manicured hand into his, and shielded his eyes. She whispered, “don’t pay attention to the bad man,” as she ushered my brother through the front door. I followed her outside, where we wiped each other’s tears away.
The photographer comforted us outside. He explained that the man was no stranger; he was the synagogue’s gabbai. As an ultra-Orthodox Jew, a member of the Chabad movement, the gabbai had taken offense to my bat mitzvah ceremony; he considered a girl’s reading Torah and wearing a Tallit sacrilegious. I returned to the synagogue’s interior, and walked up to the ark, where my dad and the gabbai were inches apart, both livid. “We traveled thousands of miles from the United States to celebrate this mitzvah. How could you do this to a fellow Jew?” my dad demanded.
“You are no Jew,” the gabbai said.
My father’s face grew a dark shade of red. I grabbed his elbow and said, “It’s okay. Let’s finish your speech outside.”
I led him out of the synagogue, and our family trekked towards a nearby garden. We gathered in a circle, and my dad finished his speech with tears in his eyes. He talked about how easy it would be for us to start hating everyone who looked like the gabbai, or who was as religious as he was–and how it would be wrong to do so. He analogized this to how hard our family, and the Romanians who had established this very synagogue in whose shadow we stood, struggled to retain our Jewish identity. My parents and grandparents are the embodiment of courage. In the 1970s, they risked everything–family, friends, financial security–to immigrate to the United States from the Soviet Union. And on my Bat Mitzvah day, their courage was clearer than ever. Rather than instantly acceding to the Gabbai’s demands, my family bravely chose to defend my right to have a Bat Mitzvah.
“When most Jewish parents say that their child becomes an adult when he or she turns 13, they don’t really mean it. But today, you lived it,” he pronounced. And I could not have done so without my family’s compassion, grace, and–above all–courage.