Study in Portugal, b’nai mitzvah in Glen Rock
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Study in Portugal, b’nai mitzvah in Glen Rock

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Samuel Levy and Lauren Wojtyla stand with their b’nai mitzvah, Ezra and Moriel Levy. The family’s eldest son, Max, is not pictured. Courtesy of the family

How do you prepare for a bar and bat mitzvah in Glen Rock when you live halfway around the world?

You use Skype, an Internet service that has helped people stay connected over great distances. That was the solution for Ezra and Moriel Levy, a brother and sister who live in Cascais, Portugal.

Summer Bar/Bat MitzvahTonight and tomorrow, Ezra, 13, and Moriel, 14, will celebrate their simcha at the Glen Rock Jewish Center. The two have been working closely with their father and with the congregation’s Rabbi Neil Tow to get ready for the event.

“They’re very diligent,” said Tow. “They have been working very hard and will be leading the entire Friday night service in addition to the Saturday morning service, and reading the Torah and haftarah. I’m very happy they are a part of our Jewish center and our Jewish family.”

The Levys belonged to the Glen Rock Jewish Center in 1995 when they lived in the community, but left for Mozambique in 1997, hoping to “contribute to a poor country,” opening a law firm there called Sal & Caldeira, said the teens’ mother, Lauren Wojtyla, who was staying with family members in Englewood ahead of the event. Then, she said, for the sake of their education, the family “split””“”“ with her husband, Samuel Levy, staying in Mozambique to run the family law firm while she and the children moved to Portugal.

“We thought it would be good for the children to go to a more developed country,” she said. Her husband commutes between the two countries.

The Skype lessons began just over a year ago, said Wojtyla. The teens have been studying twice a month with the rabbi and once a week with their father, who is teaching the children the Torah portion and haftarah. Tow has been working with them on prayers, she said.

“They agreed to that as a sort of ‘division of labor,'” she said, calling the Skype experience “effective and simple.”

“There is a camera already built in to our computer,” she explained. When the children used the program, they were able to both talk to the rabbi and see his facial expressions.

“It’s a wonderful way to run the lessons from a distance,” she said.

Levy recorded the Torah and haftarah portions on the teens’ iPods so that they could listen to them at any time.

“That’s how they have been practicing,” said Wojtyla.

Samuel Levy had studied in Portugal back in college and spoke Portuguese fluently. Wojtyla and the children learned the language along the way, which was not as difficult as they expected. Wojtyla, who had worked at the family’s law firm, described her co-workers as very “patient and kind people.”

Levy and Wojtyla always pictured their children having b’nai mitzvah but cost and logistics presented a problem. When the time came to decide where to hold the event, they needed to choose among Mozambique, Portugal, and the United States.

The family was unable to have the b’nai mitzvah in their Lisbon community, where they belong to an Orthodox synagogue.

“When the girls have a bat mitzvah [there], the girls study and then have an acknowledgement of their studying, but it is not equivalent to being on the bimah and reading Torah, and this way Moriel is able to do that at a Conservative egalitarian synagogue,” Wojtyla said.

Ultimately, she said, they realized that Glen Rock was the most practical place to have it and requested a “long-distance membership” from Tow, since their membership had long expired.

He enthusiastically agreed to work with them, she said.

“I think we were so excited about it because they made the commitment to be present as often as they could,’ Tow said. “They have come to the states five times since they rejoined in preparation for the bnai mitzvah. They have been up on the bimah and have volunteered in services while they have been here, and really contributed.”

Tow said he was glad that the family wanted to rejoin, even though as distant members. He noted that he had never used Skype before communicating with Ezra and Moriel, and that he is not very “computer savvy.”

“I took our lessons as an opportunity to talk about a few things in Judaism in addition to studying for the b’nai mitzvah,” he said. He will conduct study sessions with the children and their parents in the future, he said, noting that the family enjoys such contact, since there is not a large Jewish community in Portugal.

“Not to be an advertisement for Skype,” Wojtyla said, “but my daughter thanked the inventors of Skype for allowing this to happen. I don’t know if it could have worked without this kind of interaction with the rabbi.”

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