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Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Three of the women to become bat mitzvah Saturday examine the Wood River Jewish Communityís historical Torah, from left to right, Molly Levy, Rebekah Helzel and Margery Freidlander. Express photo by Dana DuGan

Mazal tov!

Five women become bat mitzvah

Express Staff Writer

Five Wood River Valley women are becoming bat mitzvah this weekend at the St. Thomas Church in Ketchum. The ceremony led by the women who are members of the Wood River Jewish Community is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, July 17.

As with bar mitzvah or son of the commandment, becoming bat mitzvah is a ritual wherein a female becomes a daughter of the commandment, which essentially means that he or she has become a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, and must follow the rules of Jewish life. But not many adult women have ever had the chance to enter fully into the community.

Instead, age-old Jewish traditions were, in part, responsible for hindering the advancement of the bat mitzvah. Throughout history, Jewish women had a separate and much less active role in prayer than men.

However, as bat mitzvah become more popular historians discovered evidence that families began honoring their daughters with a special meal for their 12th birthday in countries such as France, Italy and Germany about 200 years ago. In the U.S the first one was in 1922. Bat Mitzvah wasnít recognized at all in orthodox congregations where men and women still do not sit together.

"This is the first time any adults have become bat mitzvah in the valley," Rabbi Martin Levy of the Wood River Jewish Community explained. "It wasnít encouraged in the 50s and 60s, not until the 70s was it common at all. These women are between 50 and 70 years old. They started studying Hebrew with me two years ago."

The women are Lindy Cogan, Molly Levy, Margery Freidlander, Rebekah Helzel and Joyce Marcus. Levy, who is married to the Rabbi, and Freidlander are on the board of trustees of the congregation.

Helzel converted to Judaism in February 2003, though sheíd been a practicing Jew for 30 years.

"Four of us were taking Hebrew," she explained. "After about a year, we were talking about all the uses we had for Hebrew and decided it would be great to become bat mitzvah together. Four of us belong to the choir, so we were friends from there. Joyce Marcus moved to San Diego eight months ago, but is coming back to join us for this."

"Itís really a highlight for the whole community that a group like this has been working for this day. People are coming from all over the country for it," Levy said.

To ready themselves the women "started from the beginning," Levy said. "They learned the alphabet, how to read basic things, then progressed to reading prayers."

Since November they have been learning sections of the Torah to be read at the ceremony. "Each one reads a section from the Book of Numbers. The scriptural readings are set years ahead of time. They are reading the last chapter of Book of Numbers, not just reading from scroll but are chanting, which is harder than reading. It takes twice as much practice since itís without vowels," Levy said. "Everyone has a different melody for their individual passage. Itís a big deal."

The five of them will conduct the entire morning service, including music, liturgy, and the readings.

"At this age itís an affirmation of your heritage, your belief in Judaism and a sense of community in the Wood River Valley," Helzel said. "All of us have moved here from somewhere else, and came together. Before Rabbi Martin got here we wouldnít have been able to do this. Itís added a lot to our life as Jews, we read and understand so much more."

Levy, who is just as enthusiastic as his students, said the Jewish community as a whole has benefited from the womenís commitment. "For the community itís a sign of the maturation. For the women, itís a big obligation theyíve taken on. It is setting a wonderful example for the Jewish community, Itís a beautiful thing. Each one is going to give a speech on what this means to them personally."

After the morning service there will be a reception on the patio at St. Thomas, and everyone who has come to the service is welcome to attend. Individual dinners are being held afterwards. "After a couple years of studying, what the heck," Helzel laughed.

Since they are not youths, what happens about the traditional gifts?

"An important part of being a Jew is doing a good deed each day. So we have asked for no gifts," Helzel explained. Instead, they have asked that any donations be made to either the Wood River Jewish Community or to any of the local charities the women are associated with, such as the Advocates, the Blaine County Hunger Coalition, the Lee Pesky Learning Center and others.


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