published Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Faith Focus: Mitzvah held at Wailing Wall

A coming-of-age bat mitzvah is already a sacred ceremony for young Jewish girls, but a bat mitzvah at the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem is a signature event, indeed.

Chattanooga's Lily Shire, a rising eighth-grader at Girls Preparatory School, had such an experience last month at what is considered to be one of the most sacred sites in the Hebrew faith. It was made even more special, she says, because it was held in conjunction with a bat mitzvah for her Oregon cousin, Olivia.

"It felt special," Lily, 13, says. "It was a meaningful, memorable experience ... at such a holy place."

The destination ceremony was her mother's idea, she says, but one she embraced immediately. If the site wasn't enough, the Shires' rabbi, Susan Tendler of B'nai Zion Congregation, was able to assist in the ceremony because she was to be in Israel for a rabbinical assembly.

"It was special to have her there," says Fern Shire, Lily's mother.

The family even had something in common with a celebrity on the trip as their plane ride to Israel also included Michael Gelman, the often mentioned executive producer on the "Live! with Kelly and Michael" talk show, and his family. On the show when he returned, Gelman explained that he was taking his daughter for a destination bat mitzvah at Masada, an ancient fortification in southern Israel and the country's most popular tourist attraction.

While the male and female sections of the Western Wall draw thousands of tourists every day, the Shire bat mitzvah group was able to hold a ceremony in relative privacy near Robinson's Arch at the southern part of the wall.

Lily says the bat mitzvah, complete with its Hebrew readings, recitations and a speech on how that day's Torah readings related to her life, was just perfect for her. Some girls and boys have parties surrounding their ceremonies, "but this was more meaningful -- being in Israel with my family," she says. "I was more comfortable with my very close friend, my cousin, Olivia."

Like most Jewish children-turning-young adults, Lily began her education for the big day a year out, training with B'nai Zion Director of Congregational Learning Jason Cathcart.

Fern Shire says the education experience and the bat mitzvah itself have made a difference for her shy daughter.

"She had to read the Torah [and] lead the service," she says. "She's much more confident."

Lily says it all came off according to plan.

"I felt pretty comfortable," she says. "I was not as nervous as I thought I would be."

She says her speech drew from a passage in Numbers in which the prophet Balaam, sent by King Balak to curse the Israelites, instead issues only God-given, positive prophecies for the people. She compared the pressure on Balaam to the peer pressure teenagers endure to do the popular thing instead of the thing they know is right, she says.

As part of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, it is recommended but not required that subjects undertake a project to help other people. While in Jerusalem, Lily and the Shires visited Yad LaKashish, a nonprofit organization which offers the city's elderly and disabled a sense of purpose and self-worth through work opportunities, support services and a community environment.

While there, Lily says, she observed immigrants who were professional people in their country of origin but who came to Israel without jobs. Now, she says, many are artists who offer their work through the organization's gift shop.

Lily wants to raise awareness of Yad LaKashish in the U.S. and even have money for gifts she might receive for her bat mitzvah -- and a follow-up service at B'nai Zion in August -- diverted to the organization.

That would only add, she says, to a once-in-a-lifetime experience and "something I'll never forget."

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at ccooper@times freepress.com or 423-757-6497.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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