UA students affirm faith at B’nai Mitzvah

By Renee Claire
The Arizona Jewish Post, May 2005

“For many young Jewish college students, being away from home for the first time, surrounded by people of different cultures and faiths, offers opportunities to experiment with new religious paths. The pull away from Judaism can be strong. This reporter knows of a family in Boston who prayed that no one would recognize their son, who several years after his Bar Mitzvah appeared in saffron robes, bald pate and clanging finger cymbals singing his days away in Logan International Airport.

Nothing could be further from that case than the experience of five University of Arizona undergraduates who became the first B’nai Mitzvah class of the UA Hillel Foundation. On April 30, during a Shabbat service attended by nearly 100 friends, family members and community well-wishers, these students proudly assumed their places in the adult Jewish community. For nearly a year, they had worked diligently to prepare themselves, acting on their desires to better understand Judaism.

Michelle Blumenberg, executive director of UA Hillel since 1992, says she always dreamed of seeing B’nai Mitzvah training offered at Hillel. But it took a lot of patience to wait for the occasion to present itself. “Since this is something that would have to come from the students themselves, there was no way to really promote the idea,” she explains.

When Naomi Brandis and Sarah Strand (encouraged by “mentor” Judaic studies senior Jaime Fogel) met with Blumenberg to discuss the possibility of becoming B’not Mitzvah, the seed was sown for the development of a program. In August 2004, at Hillel’s first Shabbat service of the school year, an announcement about the formation of a B’nai Mitzvah class enticed three other students to step forward: Michelle Strand, Allison Salazar and Dan Orenstein.

With the students’ commitment affirmed, Blumenberg asked local Jewish educator Amy Lederman if she would lead the class. Lederman accepted, working with the five students for an hour and a half every Monday for nearly a year. During the first semester they studied Jewish history, literature, ethics, holiday observance and spirituality. To Lederman’s amazement, despite demanding university workloads and occasional illnesses, “not one of them ever missed class.” In January, Lederman invited the students to her home for a Shabbat dinner, where she says that experiencing the living, spiritual element of Judaism encouraged and moved her students further along their paths toward Jewish practice and identity. “It’s [been] an amazing experience to be a part of, as a teacher and a mother of two college-ready kids … to see how deeply interested and motivated they have been to attain this special goal,” she said.

To help prepare the students for Torah chanting and blessings, Lederman called on her friend Marlene Burns, a Jewish educator who regularly teaches pre-teen B’nai Mitzvah students. In addition to the Torah portion blessings, Burns taught the five students many of the prayers for the service. Given their limited Hebrew skills, Burns says she proceeded with modest expectations, prioritizing the material so as to start with the most basic instruction. “They kept saying that they wanted to do more Hebrew,” Burns said. “I had created a list of supplemental prayers, a wish list of things that I’d have liked them to learn if there was time … and they got to do it all,” she said. “Their motivation was phenomenal.”

As the date of the B’nai Mitzvah approached, the students worked with Lederman and Burns to create a service that was meaningful to them. Throughout the service, the students gave moving commentaries, expressing their thoughts on their personal commitment to Judaism and their spiritual paths.

Senior Dan Orenstein, 22, raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, says his family celebrated both religions’ holidays, but “neither with a particularly religious bent. I never set foot inside a synagogue until high school, and though it was a somewhat strange experience (since I knew no Hebrew), I remember being very struck by the vocal melodies of the cantor, being a musician myself.” Thanks to Hillel, he says that he was able to act on his growing interest in Judaism to become more involved in the Jewish community on campus and move further along on his personal Jewish path.

Freshman Michelle Strand, 19, expressed her belief that the music we sing together in community prayer brings us together, and that, itself, is answered prayers.

Her older sister, Sarah Strand, 22, a senior Judaic Studies major, said a birthright israel trip gave her a strong connection to Judaism that she never experienced growing up in Scottsdale. In her Bat Mitzvah speech, Strand expressed her deepening understanding of life and what it is to be a Jew: “Though my relationship with G-d has changed, I’ve accepted that what I’m feeling or not feeling is okay. To be b’nai Israel is to struggle with G-d.”

Sophomore Allison Salazar, 20, born in Mexico to a Jewish-American mother and a Catholic-Mexican father, credits her leaning toward Judaism to her Jewish grandmother’s persistence. Salazar believes, like her B’nai Mitzvah classmates, that “Hillel has given me the hands-on approach to Judaism that I needed in order to understand the religion.”

Junior Naomi Brandis, 21, credits Hillel with helping her in her professional aspirations: “I have an internship in Washington D.C. this summer, and this is in large part due to the staff at Hillel.” Like Sarah Strand, Brandis also credits the birthright program with “truly changing my life … directing me down the path that I’m currently on.” Five years ago, Brandis claims, she was an atheist. Now she boasts of “great pride in belonging to the Jewish people” and says that being able to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem influenced her path into Jewish belief. As she sees it, “Struggle is an integral part of the journey.”

All of the B’nai Mitzvah students said that in addition to the pride and accomplishment they felt in their learning, they reaped two other important benefits: their friendship with each other, and the opportunity to have had Amy Lederman as teacher, friend and guide.

Asked to evaluate the learning process, Orenstein said he enjoyed “the enhanced confidence I’ve gained in my Jewishness — I’m no longer feeling on the outside looking in … I can’t really think of any part of the process that I haven’t enjoyed.”

Lederman says, “They are all in it for the right reasons. They’ve learned so much, and yet I feel that I’ve learned much more from them than they’ve learned from me. And what’s so beautiful is that they’ve all come home to Judaism.”