Brianna Patek has never forgotten the stories her parents told her about their former lives as Jews living in Ukraine. “It was very anti-Semitic,” the Cornell University freshman recalled her parents saying of life in the former Soviet state. “Because you couldn’t practice your religion or culture, there was a reluctance to do so when they immigrated here.”
For Patek, learning about her parents’ hardships as Jews in another country fueled her wish to grow closer to Judaism in this one. For her, having the chance to become a bat mitzvah last month with six of her Cornell Hillel peers was “the culmination of [my] American dream.”
For the past seven years, Cornell Hillel has hosted Big Red Bar Mitzvah, which aims to give college students who never had a bar or bat mitzvah the chance to study for one in college. Every summer, the Hillel looks for potential candidates, aiming to give as many people as possible the chance to become a bar/bat mitzvah. Once candidates are chosen, they learn about their parashah, practice their Torah portions and reflect on what the ritual means to them.
Photo by Cathy J. Saloff-Coste
When the big day arrives, as it did most recently on Nov. 18, the b’nei mitzvah students participate in a Shabbat morning service and say a d’var Torah before dancing the night away at a Big Red Bar Mitzvah party sponsored in part by CU Tonight, a Cornell University organization that funds large-scale nonalcoholic weekend events.
This year, Cornell Hillel found seven bar mitzvah candidates, a diverse group ranging from freshmen to juniors. Cornell Hillel’s Reform Engagement Associate, Jonah Rothstein, served as teacher, tutor and spiritual adviser.
For David Brodsky ’20, become a bar mitzvah also meant getting closer to Judaism. “My family is not very religious, and to have an entire bar mitzvah service was not really a priority, so it never happened.” When the big day finally came for him last month at Cornell Hillel, “being in front of everybody and reciting the aliyah was very rewarding.”
Photo by Anna Shats
When Shabbat ended, Cornell students feted the seven b’nei mitzvah at the Big Red Bar Mitzvah party. This year, the students chose “the Roaring Twenties” as the party’s theme. To stay on point, Cornell Hillel rented casino tables, strings of pearls and top hats. Student members of the Cornell Poker Club were dealers for games of blackjack roulette and poker.
And of course, the seven students were lifted high above the revelry on chairs in traditional Jewish fashion. A student DJ spun tunes, student volunteers poured mocktails and everyone present had a chance to share in the long-deferred dream come to life.