In The Bat Mitzvah Spirit


Among the concerns for the Lippmans of the Upper East Side in planning their daughter Juliet’s bat mitzvah last fall was how to give the occasion some spiritual significance.

"What should we do so it’s not just a party?" Marie Lippman asked a friend, Rabbi Adina Lewittes of Tenafly, N.J., over lunch at a Midtown restaurant a few months before the bat mitzvah.

Rabbi Lewittes answered by telling a story she had just read in Rabbi Daniel Gordis’ on-line column from Israel.

The column ("Three Girls, Three Graves, One Torah") was about a group of girls from a Jerusalem high school who went to Poland in 1990 and found a merchant selling "Jew dolls" in the shape of "traditional Jews." The dolls were made in part from scraps of an old Torah scroll that the merchant’s uncle had taken from the house of a Polish Jew who had disappeared during the Holocaust.

The girls pooled their money to buy the remaining parts of the Torah and smuggled it back to Israel.

Last year, girls in the same school, Pelech, paid to have the scroll repaired and gave it to their school.

When Rabbi Lewittes told that story, "I had goose bumps," Marie recalled.

"What a good idea," she thought. "Why don’t we buy an old Torah?"

She and her husband, Harley, could find a Torah scroll from Eastern Europe and bring it back to a country in Eastern Europe in honor of Juliet’s bat mitzvah.

"What could be better than this?" Marie exclaimed. Harley agreed.

Rabbi Lewittes found the scroll; the Lippmans found the community.

So on the evening of Friday, June 17, a week after Juliet’s studies at The Hewitt School end, and seven months after her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El and luncheon reception at the Harmonie Club, the Lippmans will be in Warsaw.

They will be among a group of American and Polish Jews who will escort the Torah from the site of the city’s former Great Synagogue (the building was destroyed as the Nazis’ final blow against the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943) to the Nozyk Synagogue (the only extant building still used as a Jewish house of worship there) 20 minutes away.

"We’re going to have singing and dancing" in the streets, said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the Long Island-born chief rabbi of Poland, and a chupah under which the scroll will be carried. The rabbi is expecting dozens of people to participate.

"Not just Orthodox," Harley said. "It’s a big tent."

The crowd will include leaders of Jewish communities from around the country, filmmaker Ellen Friedland, who is making a documentary on the Lippmans’ gesture, and Juliet’s siblings, Nina, 16, and Adam, 9.

The Torah scroll, to be housed in the ark of the Nozyk Synagogue, is the Lippmans’ gift to Poland’s Union of Jewish Congregations. Any Polish congregation or visiting group of Jews may use the scroll.

"It’s honoring the past," Harley said. "Poland was the center of Jewish living before the Holocaust."

The scroll, which Rabbi Lewittes found at the shop of a Lower East Side scribe while seeking one for her own congregation, Sha’ar, is 129 years old, Marie said. It was written by a scribe in Strasbourg, France, for a family in Poland.

Marie is from France. Harley, whose grandfathers came from Poland, studied on a Fulbright scholarship 30 years ago in Wroclaw, a city in western Poland. The Lippmans liked the geographic symmetry.

"It was precisely what we were looking for," Marie said.

After a few minor repairs by Zelig Blumenthal, the Lower East Side scribe, the scroll went to Juliet’s luncheon reception, where it was displayed on an armchair, then to the Lippmans’ apartment, where it lies atop a tall bookcase, wrapped in a soft cotton blanket, until it goes to Poland. The parchment panels wind around the original wooden Etz Chaim stakes, and a new velvet Torah cover protects the scroll.

It will be used for the first time since being restored to kosher status during Shabbat morning services at the Nozyk Synagogue the day after the Hachnasat Sefer Torah through Warsaw. Harley plans to be there for an aliyah.

"It’s an excellent example of American Jews who haven’t forgotten where American Jews came from," Rabbi Schudrich said. "This is an American Jewish family that takes their Jewish identity seriously."

The Lippmans, the rabbi said, "haven’t forgotten that even after all the destruction that took place in Poland, there is a remnant left that we have a responsibility to help."

Poland had 3 million Jews before World War II. Current estimates range between 5,000 and 20,000.

But Polish Jewry, like the Jewish communities throughout the once-communist region, has experienced a revival during the past 15 years, led in large part by such U.S.-based organizations as the Joint Distribution Committee and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.

Rabbi Lewittes calls the family’s donation of the scroll "a real powerful statement. It’s a gesture to help breathe life into a community that has such deep roots."

"We hope this will be an inspiration to other people," other Jews who share the Lippmans’ tony lifestyle, Harley said.

Juliet, 13, acknowledged that at the beginning she didn’t like the idea. Like many teenagers she said she wanted a big bat mitzvah.

Now, however, "I’m starting to warm up to the idea," she said. "It’s very powerful.

"It’s not only about the party. I think it’s a very good idea. This will always be with me."

As part of the dedication ceremony in the Nozyk Synagogue, Juliet will speak about the Torah scroll’s journey. She said the scroll has reinforced her connection with Judaism and strengthened her desire to visit Israel.

Juliet said that when she has children and they become of age for a bar or bat mitzvah, she would like to do for them what her parents are doing for her."

A bat mitzvah is a connection," she said. "It’s becoming a grown-up Jew."