Becoming a bat or bar mitzvah is about many things, but it is fair to say that prominent among them is Jewish continuity.
And so is love, and so is weaving love and continuity together into a strong rope strong enough for generations to hold onto together.
Okay. So how does this work in real life?
Dianne Nashel of Tenafly never had a bat mitzvah, and neither did her mother, Ruth Steckman. But her three daughters did, and next June her oldest grandchild, her granddaughter Raina Nashel Lambert of Ocean Township, who is now 11, will become bat mitzvah.
So far, so ordinary.
But Raina wasn’t content to leave it at that. “Raina was talking with my daughter, who said, ‘You know, grandma always said that all the boys in the family had bar mitzvahs, and they all went to yeshiva, and the girls were like chopped liver,’” Ms. Nashel said.
In fact, Ms. Nashel is one of eight first cousins. “I grew up in Forest Hills,” a very Jewish section of Queens, she said. “All four of my boy cousins went to yeshiva at least through eighth grade, and all of them had a bar mitzvah, but the girls — all four of us had nothing. So I made sure that my daughters all had bat mitzvahs, because I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Her daughters all celebrated becoming bat mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Tenafly. “My husband, Howard, was an atheist” — although when he went to shul it was Orthodox — “but he was very much in favor of it. He said, ‘I might not believe in God, but I am surely Jewish.’”
Now it’s Raina’s turn to plan her bat mitzvah, set for next June at Temple Beth Miriam in Elburon. When her mother, Marissa Nashel Lambert, mentioned her own mother’s situation, Raina knew exactly what she wanted to do. “She said, ‘Let’s do it together,’” her grandmother said. “She said, ‘Let’s ask the rabbi.’
“The first thing I said to her was, ‘I don’t want to take away from your special occasion,’ and she said, ‘No. It will just make it more wonderful.’”
The rabbi has to plan what he will do at the service — most likely Raina will chant the Torah portion in Hebrew and Ms. Nashel will read it in English, but that’s not settled yet. There also is the mitzvah project — called Kishrei HaLev, connections of the heart — that is a necessary part of becoming bat mitzvah at Beth Miriam.
“That part was very important to us, and we had to think of something that we could do together,” Ms. Nashel said.
Ms. Nashel is a hands-on philanthropist in Bergen County; an abbreviated list of her affiliations shows that she has been president of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson twice, and now chairs the senior adult department of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. “I have devoted my time to local Jewish charities,” she said. “I am very active, and I like to see the fruit of my labor affecting my community.”
Some of the programs and activities of the organizations for which she volunteers establish relationships that she finds deeply moving. “At JFS we have bar mitzvah children going into the houses of shut-ins, and we pay for Internet for those who can’t afford it. Some of those kids and their parents have become close to the shut-ins; they’ve taught them to use Skype and FaceTime and the iPad.
“One thing that really got me going was one woman, a shut-in, who was Russian, and hadn’t seen her brother for 20 years. Now, they talk to each other every day.”
That’s how their Kishrei HaLev project was conceived.
The two are teaching frail elderly participants at JCC senior programs how to use iPads and other tablets to keep in touch with their families. Their elderly students are “getting excited about it,” Ms. Nashel said. “I told them, ‘You might not have one now, but iPads and little computers are not as expensive as they used to be. You can sort of say ‘Guys, for Chanukah, for my birthday, I want this so that I can keep in touch with my children and grandchildren.’
“We’ll teach them to text, because young people don’t really do email anymore. They text. It’s easier on an iPad or a tablet, and you can make the fonts big.”
Ms. Nashel and Raina have started their work. “They think she’s adorable,” Ms. Nashel said, and that immediate connection makes it easier for the seniors to relax. “She’s cute. Eleven-year-olds are still adorable.”
There is another benefit that Ms. Nashel and Raina derive from working together on a joint bat mitzvah project, and that has to do with the bond that is developing between them. “I had three kids in five years, and it was hard to give each one this kind of individual attention,” Ms. Nashel said. “Here I am, sharing something special with Raina.”
Because Raina is the oldest of seven grandchildren, Ms. Nashel now faces the happy challenge of figuring out what projects to do with the others — it won’t include a shared bat mitzvah, but it will include a tzedakah project. “The next one down is very handy, so I bet we can go into houses and get something fixed,” she said. “The idea is to find something for each one’s strengths.”
Beth Miriam’s rabbi, Cy Stanway, has never done a granddaughter-grandmother bat mitzvah before, but he thinks it’s a great idea. He is also enthusiastic about their project.
“It’s so appropriate that Raina wants to teach older people how to use an iPad,” he said. “Technology is part of our children’s world — and it’s also part of our seniors’ world. Seniors have told me time and again how important it is for them to be able to communicate with email and Skype. Initially many of them are frightened of the technology. For Raina to be doing this with her grandmother shows that it can be done, and that there really is nothing to be afraid of.
“They’re not just teaching them how to use an iPad — which almost everyone has; they are ubiquitous — but they also are opening up a world to these older people, a world that many of them don’t even know exists.
“They can encourage people to get over their fears. That probably will be the most challenging part of the whole experience. I know people who have literally broken into a sweat just turning on their iPads. They were afraid that something would blow up, or that they would break something. But once they learn how to do it, then all of a sudden they are the cool grandparents, and using the technology they can create communities that never were there before.”
As for Raina and Ms. Nashel, according to Rabbi Stanway: “They are very much changing lives for the better.”