Israeli mom’s search for a meaningful bat mitzvah leads back to Schenectady

Zoe Coleman-Becker at her bat mitzvah celebration, July 2013. (Evan Lauber)

Zoe Coleman-Becker at her bat mitzvah celebration, July 2013. (Evan Lauber)

(JTA) — In Zoe Coleman-Becker’s Tel Aviv circle of friends, bat mitzvah typically means a surfing party, an overnight in the desert or a Japanese tea party. But Zoe’s mom, Pamela Becker, wanted her daughter to have much more than that. She wanted a celebration that also was a meaningful Jewish experience.

“It’s relatively status quo to make a bar mitzvah in Israel,” said Becker, who will be making a bar mitzvah for her four sons.

A bat mitzvah, on the other hand, is “hugely difficult — you have to think totally out of the box” to have the type of service she remembered having back in the United States.

She decided the best way to accomplish that was to plan a bat mitzvah celebration for Zoe in her childhood synagogue, Agudat Achim in Schenectady, N.Y. — even though Becker’s parents, who live in nearby Loudonville, no longer belong to the Conservative shul.

Still, Becker and her parents felt an emotional connection to Agudat. In Tel Aviv, she says, “we don’t have any place that would be egalitarian and beautiful and have a sense of history.”

The plans began last fall with a big question: Would the synagogue agree that even though the family does not belong, Zoe could become a bat mitzvah there? No problem. The rabbi gave his blessing, with the board following suit.

“I knew this was a very special request and I was very touched that the family had a very strong connection to Agudat Achim,” said Mery Gross, synagogue president at the time. “The request was made during Agudat’s 120th year celebration and it really speaks to the impact that the congregation has had on its congregants.”

Once everyone was on board for the July 20 service, Zoe began studying her Torah portion and working on a d’var Torah. The family arrived in the United States on July 4; four days later, Zoe learned that b’nai mitzvah students also do a haftarah reading, along with the accompanying blessings. She was undeterred, wanting to do the same.

It was time for “zaydie boot camp,” as her grandfather, Martin Becker, who spent hours helping her learn her haftarah portion and the blessings that accompany it, put it. She met with b’nai mitzvah tutor Alexandra Schmidt on Sunday, a week before the bat mitzvah, to be sure she was ready for the service. Her Torah portion was fine, but the haftarah?

“She didn’t really have it together,” Schmidt says. “Normally, I’d say forget it,” the child just won’t do that part. But in Zoe’s case, she’s “a fine music student and obviously her Hebrew is native. She happens to have a grandfather who has ritual skills. She was motivated.”

So Schmidt told her, “Let’s meet Wednesday” — just three days before the bat mitzvah. “She came back Wednesday and it was fine,” the tutor said. “That does not happen often.”

Becker was thrilled with the experience. But she still plans for her four sons to celebrate their b’nai mitzvah in Israel, the start of a new family tradition.

As for 12-year-old Zoe: “It felt good to be on the bima.”

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