Recently, the UJA Federation of Greenwich, Connecticut committed to providing a service to the Ethiopian olim in their Partnership 2000 region that feeds not only their stomachs, but also their hearts.
Bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations are unheard of in Ethiopia, and so when 12- and 13-year old olim attend their Israeli classmates’ parties and watch their new friends being fussed over, it creates one more way in which they feel isolated and deprived.
Now, thanks to members of the Greenwich community, the children at the Merchavia Absorption Center in Afula are guaranteed to enjoy bar- and bat-mitzvah parties that celebrate their entrance into adulthood and put them on more equal cultural footing with their new peers.
At the start of a bat-mitzvah celebration last week, 18 girls ages 12-15 piled into a coach bus along with their parents, who wore their best festive clothes. At a bedouin-style tent in the Galilee’s Moshav Arbel, they met and shared a scrumptious breakfast with the sponsors of their special day, Richard and Amy Lipton of Greenwich, their children Lianna, 17, and Justin, 15, and Amy’s stepmother, Elaine Natkins. This was the family’s first trip to Israel, and already Amy was saying half-jokingly, “If it didn’t mean leaving my kids, I’d make aliyah right now.” Justin, too, was speaking of spending a semester of college in Israel.
The Liptons decided to sponsor the bat-mitzvah party after being “blown away” by a video of a similar bar-mitzvah sponsored by their friends, the Kallmans, also of Greenwich. “It’s a basic rite of passage in Judaism,” Amy explained, “one that was important to our own children, an integral part of establishing one’s Jewish identity. We want to share the privilege with children who don’t have the means.” Lianna added that she had never given bar-mitzvah ceremonies much thought, until her day with the Ethiopian girls showed her that “it’s not something you can take for granted.” Similar group festivities for bar- and bat-mitzvahs are held in each of the absorption centers, sponsored either by federations or by individuals. The UJA Federation of Greenwich hopes to sponsor all such parties at Merchavia in perpetuity.
|The Liptons want to share the privilege of a bat-mitzvah party with children who don’t have the means.|
Soon, the 18 bat-mitzvah girls, the Liptons, several Jewish Agency staff members, and several delighted parents were saddled onto donkeys, and to the sounds of squealing and laughing girls, the group rode to the Arbel cliff, where they enjoyed a stunning view of the Galilee. Several of the fathers said that they had owned donkeys in Ethiopia, but most of the teenage girls were obviously new to the experience.
From Arbel, the group travelled to Safed, where the parents heard a lecture about the city’s history while the girls changed into their brand-new bat-mitzvah outfits. The Liptons had donated, for each girl, a new blouse and skirt (both in traditional Ethiopian festive white), underclothes, and shoes. The parents returned to the bus to find their daughters lined up in a row, their sparkling white blouses matched only by their broad smiles. The adults applauded the young women, who giggled with embarrassment.
Asked whether the concept of a bat mitzvah party was strange to him, Kebret Bayich, one of the fathers, answered that “Everything for us is new. We’re learning a new life. This is one more thing, to learn to join the rest of the Jewish people after being separated from them for 2,000 years.”
“In Ethiopia, turning 12 is just a birthday,” said celebrant Fenetah Bellai, 14, who made aliyah four months ago. “Today has been so interesting and fun. This is a really fun party. I’m so happy about my new clothes.” Her friend, Tadellah Masheshah, 12, said that most of the day’s activities, designed by coordinator Adi Dado to balance fun with religious meaning, “were a surprise to us. We so wanted to have a bat-mitzvah, like all girls in Israel. I just want to say thank you, thank you very much, to the Lipton family who made this possible.”
After a walking tour of Safed, the bat mitzvah girls enjoyed making Shabbat candles at the local Chabad Center, and a scribe showed them how Torah, mezuzah, and tefillin scrolls are written. With Amy Lipton looking on, tears in her eyes, Richard and Justin performed a sort of bar-mitzvah celebration of their own, by putting on tefillin—Richard for the second time, and Justin for the first.
Then the real party began as the group entered Safed’s Ruth-Rimon hotel, where a three-piece band welcomed the group with festive music. The new immigrants, otherwise so impoverished in many ways, were fawned over by waiters and served a three-course meal. One of the girls, who made aliyah three years ago and speaks wonderful Hebrew, gave a short speech thanking the Liptons, and speaking of her and her friends’ happiness at reaching the adult stage of their lives.
“We’re all one family,” Richard Lipton told the group before bidding them farewell. “Though we’ve been scattered to Africa, America, Europe, and all over the Middle East and the world, we’ve always looked to Israel as our home, and now we are back together again after being separated for 2,000 years.” The family gave each girl a bat-mitzvah gift of silver candlesticks and an intricate Star of David necklace charm, and then someone turned on a CD with Ethiopian music, and the group gathered together for traditional Ethiopian dancing.
On the way back to Merchavia, Astillah Ayu, the single mother of seven children, including Tadillah, 12, said “It’s very special that they invited the parents to participate. This is my last daughter, so it’s very meaningful to be raising her into a women. I’m so happy. I hope she’ll be very successful and reach great levels in her studies.”
By 5:30 pm, everyone was back at the absorption center, getting ready for a 6 pm English class. But the day had clearly warmed everyone’s spirits. As Alizka Yarden, the center’s director said to the group, “Every child in Israel celebrates a bar-mitzvah or a bat-mitzvah, and it’s a day you remember for the rest of your life. Someday, you will have your own daughters, and celebrate a bat-mitzvah with them.”
Written by Rachel M. Sprintzer