When junior Ithaca native Katarina Andersson was 12 years old, her parents told her that having a Bat Mitzvah was off the table.
Confused, Andersson talked to her parents about why she could not
participate in a traditional Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. She had been rasied Jewish, though her parents did not follow strict Jewish practices. She soon found out that her family was caught in a sticky web of religious politics.
One of Andersson’s aunts converted to Born Again Christianity before marrying her husband. Because Andersson and her parents did not convert from Judaism as well, her aunt disapproved of their religious opinions. Trying to avoid conflict in the family, Andersson and her parents put her Bat Mitzvah on the back burner.
Tensions grew in the family as time went on, and Andersson and her parents still did not convert. She received countless “Veggie Tales” videos in the mail from her aunt and “Jesus loves you” paraphernalia. At family gatherings, religion was often brought up as a topic of conversation.
“I would hang back from those conversations, and so would my parents,” she said. “We can’t really express how we feel, but we still do love them.”
Upon entering college, Andersson took time to explore different faiths. She did her research on major religions including Buddhism, Hinduism and Catholicism. She read the Quran and attended Catholic mass a few times before realizing that the religions did not stick with her.
“I like to learn and experience other religions, but I didn’t connect with them to say the least,” she said. “I appreciate anything that practices love — that’s very meaningful to me.”
Andersson said her beliefs fit best in the Jewish framework. Growing up, her Hebrew and Judaic education was pieced together from different denominations. She said she often finds herself connected to Judaism the most when singing the Hebrew melodies because she loves how music plays such a large role in the Jewish faith.
“The melodies are beautiful and they have different tonalities than western music,”
she said. “I tried to remember the melodies that my old rabbi used.”
Freshman Marisa Rosenberg, treasurer of Hillel, said the organization usually holds an annual party, but this year they thought it would be special to have an actual Bat Mitzvah. They sent emails to students announcing they would sponsor a Bat or Bar Mitzvah if a student wanted to have one.
This was a chance for Andersson, who became a member of Hillel after transferring from Hampshire College the spring of her sophomore year, to have the organization host her Bat Mitzvah. Hillel hosted both the service held Friday at Muller Chapel at Ithaca College and the party Saturday at the Fitness Center. As advertised, the entire campus was invited.
“We told her we were willing to do whatever she wanted,” Rosenberg said. “We just wanted to have this Bat Mitzvah and have this dedication to her.”
For her Bat Mitzvah, Andersson led a traditional Shabbat service, which meant memorizing multiple melodies and writing a personal statement that she would read at the end. Andersson’s preparations for the ceremony were not as thorough as a typical Bat Mitzvah would require in a traditional Hebrew school. But deciphering Hebrew blessings were the least of Andersson’s problems.
“I think the worst part of it all was the dress shopping because I hate shopping,” she said.
This was the first time in his 30 years at the college that Hillel director Michael Faber assisted a student with Bat or Bar Mitzvah preparations leading up to the ceremony. Faber said he was thrilled that Andersson elected to have a Bat Mitzvah because she “was doing it for all the right reasons.”
For a person to share herself the way she did, that is really putting yourself on the line. – Michael Faber
Faber said the purpose of a Bat or Bar Mitzvah as a coming-of-age ceremony in older societies, and some Orthodox
Jewish societies that exist today, is that once children reach puberty they are married off. Faber said he believes the age should be changed to sixteen or older so that the children have a better awareness of what they are partaking in.
“It was really a conscious decision on her part and an expression of commitment to Jewish culture,” he said. “For a person to share herself the way she did, that is really putting yourself on the line.”
While Andersson is focused on her own spiritual identification, she remains unsure about what religion her parents continue to practice. She said she wants them to do whatever is meaningful to them and what makes them happy.
“I celebrate Jewish holidays with them, and that makes them happy,” she said. “I don’t know what my dad’s deal is, and my mom has jumped around with me. She is a spiritual being like every Ithacan.”
Though her parents could not attend the ceremony, Andersson said they supported her through her religious journey. She said regardless of her faith her parents were going to continue to love her.
“It ended up being so meaningful, and so many people that I loved dearly came,” she said.
Now an official part of the Jewish community, Andersson plans to involve herself more leading up to her birthright in May. Currently, Andersson has a cornerstone fellowship for art education, a counselor position with Camp Seneca Lake at the JCC of Rochester and has plans of working with Hillel throughout her senior year.
Hillel leaders hope to host more Bat or Bar Mitzvah services throughout the coming school years.
“Hopefully we can get the word out and have more people involved in the Jewish community,” Rosenberg said. “It’s never too late.”