November 5 is a special day in my life. It is the anniversary of the day in 1955 when my sister Rochelle became the second Bat Mitzvah in the history of Temple Sharey Tefilo, East Orange, NJ, which was founded in 1875.**
It was a struggle!
Our father did not see “why girls had to do that,” but my sister really wanted to, and our mother backed her up.
To his credit, Rabbi Avraham Soltes conducted the service in the same way he conducted Bar Mitzvah ceremonies for boys. Specifically, that meant Rochelle read from the Torah on Shabbat morning. She read the troubling story of Hagar and Ishmael being sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s insistence.
Dad was very proud!
Her service, I noted, was different than the Bat Mitzvah ceremonies experienced in subsequent years by our girl cousins who grew up in a Conservative congregation in a different city. Their services were held on a Friday night, and they did not read from the Torah scroll.
I did not realize it at the time, but Rochelle’s courage in standing up to Dad and doing something he would not have chosen for her to do changed the course of my life.
For me, as a boy, Hebrew school and Bar Mitzvah studies were expectations. Frankly, Religious school became something I tried to think up excuses to avoid.
To her credit, my mother would have none of it. Her response to my latest sore throat, upset stomach or onset of pneumonia was always the same, “That’s too bad, dear. Get in the car.”
But something of Rochelle’s persistence began to play on my mind.
‘Chelle was and is rather shy. Unlike me she never craved the spotlight. She never to my knowledge starred in school plays or even desired to. She clearly did not want a Bat Mitzvah ceremony to show the world how well she could perform. She only wanted to affirm her pride in being considered a Jewish adult.
Slowly an impression formed. If Rochelle, who was the smartest person I knew, thought this “Judaism stuff” was so important that she would stand firm against Dad to affirm it, there must be something to it.
My transformation from disinterest in Jewish learning to loving embrace of it was not a sudden epiphany. It evolved over time. When people ask what made you decide to become a rabbi, I can point to several events in my life that contributed to the decision.
But as years have gone by I see that November 5, 1955, played a very important part in changing the direction of my life.
Rochelle never wanted to be a rabbi, but she wanted to marry a Jewish man and have a Jewish family. She and my brother-in-law Jack are proud parents of four daughters, each of whom celebrated her Bat Mitzvah and seven grandchildren. Six of the seven have read from the Torah as B’nai Mitzvah and the seventh is on our calendar for the fall of 2019. I am ever grateful for her example.
** Roseanne Platt, who became a well-known Jewish educator, and had it been possible then would have loved to be a rabbi, was the first. Roseanne, if you read this, I would be eager to connect with you.