Remembering my bat mitzvah, 30 years later


A bat mitzvah photo of Amy Feder at Congregation Temple Israel, where she is now senior rabbi.

By Rabbi Amy Feder, Special To The Jewish Light

This week marks the 30th anniversary of my becoming a bat mitzvah at Temple Israel. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that my memories of the event are rather cloudy. 

I remember my Laura Ashley dress with the row of pink bows at the waist, I remember slow dancing for the first time (with a boy!!) at the party in our finished basement, I remember being proud and relieved when it was all over … and that’s pretty much it. 

Several photo albums housed on my parents’ bookshelves attest to a wonderful time being had by all. But for the most part, the memories are a blur.

Except. Except for one thing. I do remember my Torah portion.  Not the Hebrew itself, though I’m always struck by how many b’nai mitzvah parents can still chant the Torah and Haftarah portions they learned decades ago. But I remember fervently believing that this portion, Lech Lecha, had a special message just for me.

Lech Lecha begins with God telling Abram to leave his parents’ home and everything he knows. Even at 12, I found it so contradictory that the story of the first Jew would begin in such a way.  

My own Judaism was inextricably linked to my family. My father’s family, who escaped from Germany during the Holocaust; my mother’s family, who seemed to be within two degrees of separation from nearly all of Jewish St. Louis. Judaism was about roots and history and connection.  

How could it have started with the story of Abram appearing to sever ties with his family and homeland? 

Yet God doesn’t just tell Abram to go and leave his family behind. God says the odd, untranslatable phrase lech lecha; it says not just that Abram should go, but that he should go “for” or “to” himself. 

I pondered that phrase a lot, wondering what it would mean to make a decision about my faith that would be just for me and that would somehow be internalized and lead me to the most authentic version of myself. I realized that, in fact, that’s what becoming a bat mitzvah was all about. 

I wasn’t necessarily leaving my parents’ or grandparents’ Judaism behind, but there were aspects of that experience that were very much my own: my friends from Jewish summer camp who traveled to celebrate with me, the hours listening to my Torah portion on my Walkman, singing Debbie Friedman’s “Lechi Lach” with my friends at the end of the weekend.  

Lech Lecha’s message to me at 12 was to find my own path to faith, and it has shaped my Jewish journey ever since.

My message to the b’nai mitzvah students I work with now, as well as to their family and friends, is to take that Lech Lecha message to heart.  

At every age, we are called upon to hear that call to “lech lecha,” not just to follow the path our parents and community set out for us, but to make it our own.  

May we each be inspired to make the journey forward one that enriches not only our own lives, but those of the generations to come.