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A Mitzvah For Adults

Wesleyan Students Immersed In Jewish Rite Of Passage At An Older Age

By TARA WEISS, Courant Staff Writer

December 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE HARTFORD COURANT. All rights reserved.

They begin by learning the Aleph Bet.

Aleph, bet, vet. Aleph, bet, vet. Gimmel, dalet, hay. Gimmel, dalet, hay.

It's the Hebrew version of the Alphabet Song, and it's familiar to almost every Hebrew-schooled Jewish kid.

The four Wesleyan University students - Justin Martínez, Rose Komesar, Marina Kastan and Anne Fox - are learning it for the first time.

"The alphabet song is amazing; I feel like I'm 6," says freshman Kastan.

They're preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs - a traditional ceremony, typically performed around age 13, that formally marks one's acceptance of the obligations of the religion. And they are doing it while studying for final exams, balancing social lives and searching for jobs.

Their parents didn't pressure them to go through the ceremony when they were younger.

"I'm so glad I wasn't forced when I was 13," says Komesar, a b'nai mitzvah student whose father is Jewish and mother is Catholic. "This is more meaningful. I'm choosing to make Judaism a more definitive part of my life."

They're taking part in a student-run b'nai mitzvah program (a group of people having a bar or bat mitzvah) that's in its second year. Daniele Heller started it last year as a project for the Jewish Renaissance Fellowship. The program - conceived, designed and taught by students - is uniquely Wesleyan.

"He found a way to make it accessible, fun and meaningful," says Rabbi David Leipziger, the university's Jewish chaplain.

The four students have different degrees of religious knowledge. But all are learning Hebrew for the first time, and all four are half Jewish.

In the hectic last week of classes before exams, the students gradually shuffled into the kosher kitchen for the weekly lunch-and-learn. That week's class was Shabbat 101. They learned the purpose and rules for the Jewish Sabbath.

Over French toast and applesauce, Ari Fagen, a sophomore and a program organizer, explained that her observance of the Sabbath has evolved. At school, she goes to Shabbat services and then has "designated Ari time."

"Shabbat, more than anything, is a time for yourself," says Nancy Wassner, a senior who is teaching the day's lesson. "In order to make Shabbat holy, make it separate. The idea of Shabbat is to do what you wouldn't normally do on a regular day. Shabbat is about a mindset."

These sessions will continue through April and culminate in a student-led service on April 16, in which they read from the Torah. They say their families are kvelling with pride and plan on attending.

After the ceremony, there's a campus-wide party. Last year's was wild - every student and faculty member on campus was invited, and 550 people attended. In a true throwback to 13-year-old kitsch, there was a moonwalk and a deejay.

Last year, four students were bar and bat mitzvahed. Sophomore Lynn Cartwright-Punnett was one of them.

"I feel like there's a number of skills all Jews have and a volume of knowledge all Jews know," says Cartwright-Punnett, whose mom is Jewish and dad is Catholic. "I felt I was missing something, and now I have it, as opposed to being an outsider."

So what makes students at one of America's most rigorous colleges devote time to exploring religion, particularly members of a generation considered apathetic?

Leipziger offers a theory: "I think students are looking for a transformative experience. We don't have that anymore. We don't have time; our gadgets are always beeping."

That may be part of it, but each student has his or her own reason.

Last semester Justin Martínez was in Puerto Rico, immersed in his father's culture. The island's customs play a significant part in his life. A music major, Martínez plays Afro-Puerto Rican percussion.

When he returned to Wesleyan this semester for his senior year, his roommate - who is also his best friend and "the biggest Jew on campus" - suggested he get in touch with his Jewish roots.

"I thought, 'I'm not religious, and I don't have that much faith, but what better way to learn about Judaism than through a rite of passage?'" says Martínez. "It means more than just taking a class and reading a textbook and looking at it from an outsider perspective. Who's to say that I won't begin to have faith. And even if I don't, it's something valuable to have done, and I chose to do it, as opposed to when I was 13, having my parents force me to go to Hebrew school."

For Martínez, who grew up on New York's Upper West Side, religion was complicated since his father is Catholic and his mother Jewish.

"My dad's family didn't like the fact that he was marrying a Jew," says Martínez. "They overcame it, to a certain extent."

But he was still only exposed to small bits of religion. "I'm hoping this will make me a better person," he says.


Religion hasn't played a major part in Rose Komesar's life. Although her parents were religiously active growing up - her father is Jewish and lived on a kibbutz in Israel after college, and her mother attended a Catholic high school through her sophomore year - they gave it up after meeting.

"That would have been a source of tension to drag kids to two different religious services per week," says Komesar, a sophomore from Los Angeles majoring in history.

Still, they participate in the major holidays. They have a Christmas tree. She fasted on Yom Kippur for the past three years. They have a seder on Passover.

Komesar started exploring the religions on her own. Judaism seemed like a better fit.

"I've read a lot of passages in the Bible, and there's a lot in Catholicism that repudiates Judaism and is antagonistic toward Judaism that made me turn away from it," she says. "By being a Catholic, I had to throw away the fact that I'm half Jewish."

She's been wearing a chai (the Jewish symbol for 18, a lucky number) on a long chain since her 18th birthday. It was passed to the women in her family from her great-grandmother.

She took an introduction to Judaism class last semester and enjoyed learning about the stories behind the holidays. Also, she heard that a friend on her floor was in the b'nai mitzvah program. That sparked her interest.

She continues: "Maybe it is a reaction to the fact that older people think we are a dead generation and don't care about anything. It's indicative of the kind of educational atmosphere at Wesleyan."


Marina Kastan's friends call her "the born-again Jew."

That's because the freshman from New York's Upper West Side went to church until she was in fourth grade. Her mother, who is Protestant, believes knowledge of any religion is important. Because her dad is Jewish, they celebrated the major Jewish holidays, but she was never formally educated.

When her father was remarried to a more observant Jew, Kastan started thinking about her own beliefs. She began reading about Judaism mostly because of her stepmother's observance.

"I saw a poster for the b'nai mitzvah class," says Kastan. "It fell into my lap, and it seemed so right. I knew you could do an adult baptism, but I didn't know adult bat mitzvahs were an option. It seemed like a sign to me."

She brought the Torah portion she'll be reading at her bat mitzvah home during winter break so her 13-year-old stepbrother can help her practice. Coincidentally, it's the same portion he read at his bar mitzvah.

"A lot of my friends thought it was a little weird that this is the first big Jewish thing I'd do," says Kastan. "The way I was thinking about it was, because it's a ceremony through which you become a religious adult, someone who has the obligations and the right to practice, it seemed both like a way for me to become more knowledgeable about Judaism and to really become a Jew. It's not just that I'm curious. I really actually believe in this stuff."

Anne Fox came to Wesleyan dating a guy who went to Shabbat services and the home-cooked dinner that followed each Friday. At first she went to be with him but soon realized it also helped her feel less homesick.

"It was the only time at college I was around adults, or the youth around me acted more like family than teenage hooligans," says Fox, a sophomore from New York's Upper West Side. "It's really comforting."

Religion has always been a significant part of her life. She's spent lots of time investigating Christianity, her mother's religion, and Judaism, her father's. Her mother instilled Fox and her older brother with the importance of religion from a young age, having them say the Lord's Prayer and the first line of the Shema (prayer) before bed.

"Our family has always had a tradition of being very religious without being able to pick a religion," she says.

For Fox, becominga bat mitzvah isn't about choosing Judaism.

"I thought about just learning the prayers at first," she says. "That seemed silly. There's a significance to becoming a bat mitzvah and taking on the responsibilities of becoming a Jew. Reading the Torah is a privilege that I had a right to by being my father's daughter. I have just as much a right to be a part of this tradition as my mother's, and nobody is going to tell me otherwise."

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