Sometimes everything just comes together exactly right.
Take a family with three generations of involvement in one synagogue.
Add aliyah to Israel three years ago, stir in a daughter who became bat mitzvah, Israeli style, at 12, but whose family would like her to do it in the American way at 13.
And then put in a grandfather who’s about to turn 83 — second bar mitzvah age.
That will yield the August 27 bat mitzvah of Alexa Shachar and the second bar mitzvah of Sam Warsoff at Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake.
Cindy Shachar, Alexa’s mother, grew up in Hillsdale; when she married, she and her husband, Albert, and their two children lived in Demarest. Emanuel always was their shul. As is the shul’s custom, it gave Alexa her bat mitzvah date four years in advance, in 2012. “We made aliyah in August 2013, but we decided to keep the date,” Cindy Shachar said. “We didn’t know what we’d be doing.”
Alexa’s birthday is in August, so the summer date was logical, but most American synagogues try not to schedule bar or bat mitzvah services during the summer, when school is out and many potential guests are away. For the Shachars, though, the date made sense. “I had asked for the summer so our Israeli family could join us,” Ms. Shachar said. Her husband is one of 10 children, and his family is huge.
Emanuel is Conservative, and the Shachars’ allegiance to that stream of Judaism is deep. In Israel, they belong to Yedid Nefesh, a Masorti shul in Modiin. (Masorti is what the Conservative movement is called outside North America.) Alexa became bat mitzah there last summer; as the shul’s custom demanded, she read Torah and haftarah but did not give a d’var Torah.
“It’s not the same in Israel,” Ms. Shachar said. “About ten weeks before, they sat down with her and taught her the trope. It was easier than here, of course, because she speaks Hebrew.
“In Israel, generally only Masorti or Reform girls go to synagogue for their bat mitzvah — and there aren’t so many of us. Mostly, for most girls, it’s just a party, like a Sweet 16.”
It’s different for boys, she added. “Even non-religious boys usually will read Torah on a Monday or Thursday, and then be called up for an aliyah on the following Shabbat.”
The Shachars wanted more for Alexa — and they knew where they wanted it. “I’m from a family of four girls, and we all had our bat mitzvahs here,” at Emanuel, Ms. Shachar said. “Rabbi Ungar was the rabbi then” — that’s Rabbi Andre Ungar, the enormously influential and beloved rabbi whose decades at Emanuel left an indelible mark on the community. “Rabbi Ungar married us, and he married Sam,” Alexa’s grandfather, “and my mother. He did the baby naming for Alexa, and for some of my sisters. Alexa first went to Rosh Hashanah services at Emanuel when she was a couple of days old. She knows everybody in the synagogue, and it was really important that we continue that connection.”
So — the family has deep roots in the shul and in Conservative tradition. They have generations of family in the Northern Valley. They have a bat mitzvah date.
They’ll have a bat mitzvah!
Next, there was the question of how to help Alexa learn her new Torah parshah and haftarah. That’s where technology came in. Alexa and the shul’s new cantor, Alan Sokoloff, had not met in person until a week or so ago, but they became very well acquainted with each other over FaceTime. Cantor Sokoloff tutored Alexa. “They had class for 35 to 40 minutes once a week, for her to learn the trope,” Ms. Shachar said. Luckily, Cantor Sokoloff’s trope is the same one that Alexa learned in Modiin, so she did not have to relearn a new one. Cantor Mark Biddleman, the shul’s long-time hazzan, who retired last year, is a family friend and will be at the bat mitzvah. He used a slightly different trope; had he still been in charge, Alexa would have had to face that extra intellectual challenge.
Mr. Warsoff was able to become bar mitzvah again because of the tradition that says that a lifespan is three score and ten. That’s 70. Once you reach that age, you begin counting again. Therefore, 83 is your second chance at being 13; albeit in a very different body and with very different expectations.
As he prepares for his second bar mitzvah, Mr. Warsoff remembers his first one. “It was at the Ocean Parkway Jewish Center in Brooklyn,” he said. “It was Conservative, tending toward Orthodox. My bar mitzvah was in 1946.
“I lucked out, I guess, in one way, because it was parshat Ki Tetze, which had the shortest haftarah, but because there were so many bar mitzvahs, I had to share it. Then I read Torah and half of the haftarah.”
He doesn’t remember the other bar mitzvah boy’s name, he added, but he remembers the rabbi’s name — Bosniak — and the cantor — Savitt. It’s funny, he said; “One time when we went to Israel, the El Al security asked me about my bar mitzvah. She asked me the rabbi’s name, and was shocked that I could remember it.”
Mr. Warsoff and his wife, Sue Romanoff, Cindy’s mother, have been involved with synagogues throughout their lives. Mr. Warsoff began to sing in the choir at Ocean Parkway from the time he was 12 until he was about 20, starting as a soprano, later becoming falsetto.
He’ll be sharing the haftarah again, but this time it will be with Alexa. Family members — children and grandchildren — will read all but one of the aliyot; that one will go to Cantor Biddleman. Family members, many of whom live locally, will come in droves.
“It feels great,” Mr. Warsoff said. “I have a sense of accomplishment, and I am proud that I am physically and mentally able to do it. And to be able to do it with my granddaughter adds something extra to it.”
What will the Shachars do when Alexa’s younger brother, Zevick, becomes bar mitzvah? “We’ll figure it out then,” their mother said.