Mark Fishman
Montreal rabbi that loves juggling family and shul

Cancelling our daughter’s bat mitzvah… and why I’m not devastated about it

She was born in Hadassah’s Ein Kerem hospital and brought to the rolling Judean Hills of Efrat. Our first born, Shira Yael was born just a few days before Pesach. It was such an incredible time. We had begun making friends in a new community, I was in rabbinical school learning for semicha (rabbinical ordination) and amidst a time of warmth, expansion, Torah and the Land of Israel, we merited a daughter.

Like most first-time parents, we really didn’t have a clue what we were doing (or what we were in for) and yet we immediately imagined the future. Where would we find a pulpit position? What would our lives look like? How would we celebrate this newborn’s Bat Mitzvah 12 years from now?! Why do parents start thinking long-term, about the distant future – even at the very beginning of a new journey? At Shira’s beautiful Simchat Bat (baby naming ceremony) the wishes were: “Yikanes L’Torah L’Chupa U’Lmaasim Tovim – May she merit to enter into Torah, marriage, and good deeds.” Our hopes and prayers for our newborn child were already visualising her marriage canopy!

During that first week my thoughts drifted to a different time, when somehow or another, Shira was going to have a meaningful Bat Mitzvah ceremony. When Shira was two years old, I graduated from Yeshivat Hamivtar (Kollel Torat Yosef for Diaspora Rabbis) and found myself posted in Montreal, Canada at Congregation Beth Tikvah ASNH – a modern Orthodox synagogue whose founder and first Rabbi took me under his wing and taught me the ropes. Now, a decade later, that two-year-old little girl who would run into the sanctuary to sit on my lap has grown into a beautiful young woman both on the inside and out.

We have watched Shira grow over the years. From shy and quiet in the classroom (her teachers were shocked when we told them at parent/teacher night that she could be rambunctious at home), she has continually found her voice over the years. Her love for reading is manifest in how she can literally spend hours on the couch with a good book. Shabbat afternoons can often see Shira begin and finish a book, sometimes more than one. She is a good friend, loyal to a fault, a loving and devoted grandchild, an adored cousin, a big sister to her three siblings (sometimes they even get along!), and a truly remarkable daughter. A hard-working student and someone who was genuinely looking forward to celebrating her Bat Mitzvah with her Beth Tikvah synagogue community.

We had decided together (ok, it was mostly me, but she came around eventually) that to mark this moment we would embark on a Torah project together – learning all 5 Megillot. We began two years ago. Each Tuesday I would come into her school, wait for her last class of the day to finish and (with a rugelach in hand) we began to learn Torah together. First we studied Esther, then onto Ruth, Shir Hashirim was next, followed by Kohelet and finally Eicha. Yes, sometimes it was easier and more engaging.  Yes, she is a typical tween so the inter-school basketball schedule had to be accommodated. Yet overall, those hours spent together were special. They were one on one father-daughter time. Each session had a singular goal in mind – the conclusion (the siyum) of the Five Megillot as the celebration of Shira’s Bat Mitzvah.

As the big moment got closer, after inviting the entire congregation, we closed the doors to our synagogue. It was (and continues to be) a heartbreaking decision. What Rabbi closes down a shul? Aren’t Rabbis supposed to make shuls places of vibrancy and openness? Instead of closeness we now practice distancing. Instead of being ‘open to all’ we are now ‘closed until further notice’. And this is truly devastating. Yet in the very act of closing down, we are showing our commitment to an even greater value than synagogue and community. We are asserting our passionate obligation to the sanctity of life and preserving our health to the greatest extent possible.

The concept of ‘flattening the curve’ is at once imminently logical as it is holy. Ensuring that our hospitals are not overcrowded and our front lines health care professionals (our true modern-day heroes) are able to still provide care to all who need it is something we all must contribute to. In these unprecedented times, we are guided by our Jewish obligation of “greatly guarding our health” (Deuteronomy 4:15) to do everything to slow the spread of COVID-19. This is, quite simply, a matter of life and death.

And so, this coming Shabbat, (Shabbat HaGadol – The Great Shabbat), the Shabbat before Pesach, when our own Shira Yael will turn 12 and enter the Jewish People as an adult… this coming Shabbat, Shira will stay home. No Kiddush (her mother will make a chocolate bubka, don’t cry her a river just yet), no service, no Torah reading, no special sermon from a kvelling father to his first born, no remarks from Shira, no public siyum on her learning, no speech from her mother about the year-long learning that they too did together… nothing. And to tell you the truth – I’m really pleased!

I’m pleased because as parents we have tried to give Shira a charmed life. She is not spoiled, far from it. But neither does she doesn’t lack her basic needs or the various wants a typical tween looks for. She has a sense of balance between her broader responsibilities and her personal time to focus on her joys and hobbies. Her maternal grandfather was a survivor of the Holocaust and certainly knew during his years detained in the camps what it meant to go without. This has led to my wife and I showering her with love and also providing limits. Love and Limits are the two key parts that have guided us as her parents. Sometimes we may have failed in one direction, and sometimes perhaps we failed in the other… But this kid has a beautiful life, and now she faces a setback. Perhaps this too is a blessing.

Entering adulthood is about many things. It means taking one’s commitments seriously. It means keeping mitzvot as one who is obligated now as an adult within the congregation. It means seeing the study of Torah as a lifelong pursuit. Being an adult means taking responsibility for your mistakes and owning them so that you can do better next time. Ultimately, being an adult means learning the lesson that (in the eternal words of Mick Jagger): “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need”.

Yes being an adult means making room for disappointments, setbacks, and circumstances not always going your way.

Already 20 years ago, Wendy Mogel, a psychologist working with an affluent clientele, felt frustrated by problems that seemed to transcend her therapeutic techniques. It was then that she had her ‘lightbulb moment’ and realised that the clients she was seeing were not suffering from psychological problems, but rather from parental overindulgence and overprotection. What such kids needed, she would later go on to write, were challenges, setbacks and problems that could be overcome instead of a protected childhood with everything given to them on a silver platter. She would go on to write her best-selling book entitled “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children”.  More recently, Cheryl Sandberg would use the terrible tragedy of her husband’s sudden death to speak about ‘Option B’. Her subtitle, wisely guiding the millions who read her powerful book speaks about ‘facing adversity, building resilience, and finding joy.’

So yes, Shira will miss out on her Bat Mitzvah celebration at CBT. And that’s absolutely fine (OK, it’s also sad, I’m certainly not rubbing my hands with glee that she missed out…). But her life will go on. She will continue to learn Torah, do Mitzvot and continue to grow into the beautiful woman she has the potential to become. This setback is exactly that – a setback. The truth is, we celebrate her each and every day. We tell her who her ancestors are and who she is capable of becoming.

In just a few days we will open the Hagaddah and ask: Why is this night different from every other night? There will be some obvious answers. Shira’s savta will be alone and not sitting next to her first grandchild. The synagogue will be closed. The Seder will be one with no guests. Yes, this night will truly be different from all other nights. Yet maybe… maybe this year, there can be something beautiful to these setbacks too. We answer our children’s questions with: Avadim Hayeinu – We were slaves to Pharaoh, and God set us free. Perhaps an additional answer to this question can also be found in the resilience, strength and newfound empowerment that comes with disappointment. Yes, there is the maror. Yes, there is the bread of affliction. Yet we find that such experiences make us into the people we are – hopefully a people that appreciates all the abundant blessings that we STILL have.

My hope and my prayer for you, our amazing and precious Shira, on your Bat Mitzvah is that this year’s disappointment will allow you to overcome any other challenges that may come your way with your poise, with your natural grace, and with your inherent mentchlichkeit. That is the person we have come to know and love.

I love you Shira. Mazel Tov. Continue to make us so proud. You do every day.

Love Abba

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Fishman is originally from London, England. He is the senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Tikvah, Montreal, Canada. A bustling 700 family synagogue.
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