Orphaned Girls Bonded by Loss at Beautiful Bas Mitzvah

At a wedding hall in Yerushalayim, 50 girls celebrated the milestone of becoming a bas mitzvah. Their shared joy was underscored by a tragic life event that brought them together: the loss of a parent at a young age.

By Noa Amouyal – Chabad.org

At a wedding hall in Jerusalem, 50 girls—many of them dressed in white tulle—celebrated the milestone of becoming a bas mitzvah. Their shared joy, however, was underscored by shared feelings of grief as each one of them had a tragic life event that brought them together: the loss of a parent at a young age.

For three of the girls, who lost a parent in recent months during the terrorist attacks on Oct. 7 and the subsequent war in Gaza, the feelings of loss were fresh and the pain was more immediate. But even for others who lost one or both parents at a much younger age, it’s still a void that never really goes away, no matter how much time passes.

Hadassah Vaknin-Amar is the mother of one of the bas mitzvah girls, Shira. She says she never thought she’d be a widow at 23. And while Vaknin-Amar eventually remarried, that came after facing life as a widow with four children in her care.

The grief and responsibilities of looking after a large family on her own were overwhelming, and Colel Chabad stepped in immediately to help.

“Colel Chabad came to me right after my husband died,” she told Chabad.org. “I’m so touched that they always check in,” she said. “A lot of NGOs expect something from you in exchange for their help, and it’s exhausting. Colel Chabad, instead, just wants to be a resource for me and my family.”

As a result, the Vankin family has turned to the organization often, with Shira being the third child in the family to have a Chabad bar or bas mitzvah ceremony. Her two brothers had bar mitzvahs sponsored by Colel Chabad’s Chesed Menachem Mendel Orphan Intervention Program as well.

“It was a day of joy, but our family’s grief never really goes away, of course,” Vaknin said candidly. “It’s grief and joy combined in such an emotional way.”

Each of the 50 girls was encouraged to bring up to 10 guests, with some 400 people in attendance in the jam-packed event hall. The celebration is held every year around the anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, the beloved wife of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

As a truly blended family, Vaknin brought her mother, mother-in-law and the mother of her late husband to watch Shira experience this joyous rite of passage.

A Day-Long Celebration

These 50 girls were not only able to have a bat mitzvah, Colel Chabad made a day out of it. The morning session included a visit to Rachel’s Tomb (Kever Rachel), an opportunity to say Psalms for the hostages and wounded soldiers and a Hafrashas Challah ceremony, where the girls carried out the one of the three mitzvot reserved for a Jewish woman.

A professional photographer was on hand to take pictures of each girl, who will take home her very own album. Finally, the day ended with a massive celebration where the girls danced and sang together in an unbridled expression of joy.

“Each family has their own unique story riddled with tragedy,” said Rachel Marton, the wife of the late Rabbi Yitzchok Marton, the director of the Chesed Menachem Mendel Orphan Intervention Program. “Whether a parent died from a terror attack, cancer or an accident, they all recognize and understand the power of grief and what it takes to overcome it. But this is one day where they all feel like they have permission to put their grief aside and enjoy the moment.”

Marton, who spearheaded the production of the event, added that “this was an uplifting day for these families. Each girl felt like a bride—beautiful, celebrated and loved.”

The event was a collaborative affair, with the hall’s decorations designed by artist Rafi Mor and the day’s emcee Michal Levitin. Rebbetzin Yemmima Mizrachi blessed the young girls and gave them chizuk (“strength”). The dancing and musical activities were organized by Racheli Gevirtz.

Marton also explained that her husband, who passed away seven months ago and who was the architect of many of the organization’s initiatives and kept close tabs on every family in attendance, would have been proud of how the event turned out.

Each girl was given a curated gift box with a necklace, earrings and a candlestick for lighting Shabbos candles.

For Hadassah, mother of Tehila, it was perhaps that candlestick that she’ll treasure the most from the ceremony.

Tehila’s father died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism nine years ago and was surprised that there were so many other girls who, like her, also lost a parent.

“She kept asking me what her father would have said to her on her bat mitzvah,” says Hadassah, who explained the event triggered a curiosity about her father, and the event prompted Tehila to embark on a spiritual journey to understand more about herself, and by extension, her father’s legacy and interests.

“It was great that Chabad was a conduit for that,” she said. “But once she got the candle from the box of gifts, she started to light candles with me despite never showing interest before. I think the ceremony made her think about the need for connection, and she was so moved to see this whole community that cares about her and wanted to find ways for her to connect to Am Israel.”

Lifelong Support

This overarching goal of giving orphans the emotional support they need is why the bat mitzvah program is just one example of the work Colel Chabad’s orphan intervention program does for these families. Regardless of where one falls on the socio-economic spectrum, the death of the parent is dramatic and, as a result, families are often at risk from a mental-health perspective, with children often suffering academic setbacks.

To that end, the organization assists 327 young widows and aids 949 orphaned children over the course of the year to make sure that their academic, spiritual and emotional needs are met.

In addition to these bar and mitzvah celebrations, the organization, named after the Rebbe, works to combat the myriad of challenges children face by providing grief-stricken families access to psychological assessments and therapy to heal emotional wounds; active collaboration with a child’s academic team; remedial teaching services to close any academic gaps; Big Brother/Little Sister programming; summer camps; and music and art lessons to offer cathartic and productive mechanisms for children to channel their grief.

“Sometimes, we encounter a parent who is doing well financially and insists they don’t need our help,” said Rabbi Menachem Traxler, Colel Chabad’s director of volunteering. “But we still do what we can, because our biggest emphasis is a child’s education. We want to ensure that an orphaned child finishes high school, and sometimes, a parent doesn’t understand that a lack of funds isn’t the only reason why a child won’t meet that goal. So whether it be music lessons, horseback riding or Shabbatons with a loving community, we want to provide a wide variety of options so that the grief these orphans experienced in childhood won’t define the rest of their lives.”

Colel Chabad Director Rabbi Shalom Duchman added, “This year in particular, we’ve seen the tremendous need for this uplifting event as Israel is in the middle of war. Despite the fighting, this is an opportunity for families and daughters to rejoice together and hope that we’ll only see more occasions for light and blessings in the years to come.”

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