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 student recalled her parents saying of life in the former Soviet Union. “Because you couldn’t practice your religion or culture, there was a reluctance to do so when they immigrated here.”
For Patek, class of ’20, learning about her parents’ hardships as Jews in another country fueled her wish to grow closer to Judaism in this one. So having the chance to become a bat mitzvah with six of her Cornell Hillel peers was “the culmination of [my] American dream.”
For the past nine 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. Once candidates are chosen, they learn about and practice their Torah portions and reflect on what the ritual means to them.
University of Pittsburgh student Marianne Kitsio, class of ’19, had a similar experience through the Hillel on her campus. Her family also immigrated from the former Soviet Union, and Judaism did not play a big part in her upbringing. Like Patek, she had never had a bat mitzvah growing up, but in May 2018, she finally got the opportunity through The Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh during a Birthright trip.
Toward the end of the trip, she participated in the ceremony with a group of four other students. “It was very nice because we all got very, very close,” Kitsio said. “It was cute.”
During the ceremony, Israeli soldiers went up to read from the Torah with each of the students, while the students read in English. They also each spoke about why they decided to have this particular experience on the trip.
Kitsio chose to talk about her upbringing and her family history.
“We would celebrate the holidays and everything, but I didn’t go to the synagogue that much, and I didn’t go to Sunday school or Hebrew school, I guess it’s called. In college, I don’t have that many Jewish friends,” Kitsio said. “That’s why I wanted to come out on this trip. That’s why I wanted to have a bat mitzvah, to finally accept my identity.”
University of Pittsburgh student Molly Tappan, class of ’20, had her bat mitzvah with Kitsio. She grew up in an interfaith family, attended Catholic school and considered herself, she said, a “High Holiday Jew.” When she started college, she wanted to get more involved with the Jewish community and did so through the Chabad House on campus as well as through her Hillel’s Birthright trip.
“[My bat mitzvah] felt like the perfect culmination of the trip in general, where we had been able to explore all sects of Judaism,” Tappan said.
A few weeks later, another group of students had a b’nei mitzvah ceremony as well, on The Queer Community X Pride Birthright Trip, which Hillel International offered for the first time this summer.
The trip put an LGBTQ spin on Birthright staples, such as a tour of Yad Vashem with an LGBTQ focus and a visit to the egalitarian side of the Western Wall.
Halfway through the trip, six of the students had their b’nei mitzvah. At the ceremony, students read Torah, gave speeches and wore a special tallis that once belonged to a person who died of AIDS.
Some of the students participated because they had never had a b’nei mitzvah before, while others had a bar or bat mitzvah but no longer identified with that gender.
“For a lot of these students, this was the moment to actually feel like they have ownership over their Judaism and who they are as an LGBTQ person and as [a] Jewish [person],” said Hannah Henschel, student engagement and wellness associate at Hillel International, who helped organize and staff the trip. “Instead of keeping it in separate categories, this was a moment for them to bring it all together.”
At Cornell, when the Big Red Bar Mitzvah day arrives, the b’nei mitzvah students participate in a Shabbat morning service and say a Torah commentary 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.
Last year, Cornell Hillel found seven bar mitzvah candidates, a diverse group ranging from freshmen to juniors. Cornell Hillel Reform Engagement Associate Jonah Rothstein served as teacher, tutor and spiritual adviser.
For David Brodsky, class of ’20, becoming 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.”
But when the day finally came for him at Cornell Hillel, “being in front of everybody and reciting the aliyah was very rewarding.”
When Shabbat ends, Cornell students fete the b’nei mitzvah at a party. One 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 b’nei mitzvah 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.
For some students, having a bar or bat mitzvah through Hillel can truly be a life-changing experience.
Drexel University alumna Emily Crasnick, for example, grew up in an interfaith family, and her parents encouraged her to find her own religious path. She went on a Birthright trip through Drexel Hillel and had her bat mitzvah in Israel in December 2015 — an experience that made her feel like she had more of a claim on her Jewish identity.
Before she decided to have the bat mitzvah there, the 2016 graduate never imagined the lasting impact the trip and ceremony would have on her.
Since 2015, Crasnick has made several other trips to the Jewish state, and this fall, she will make aliyah, or immigrate to Israel. “For me, it just represents how we don’t know where life is going to take us,” she said. “It’s hard to plan and know what’s going to happen.”