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Turning 13 comes with new responsibilities

Abigail Miller, 12, knew last year she had a lot of work ahead of her.

She would have to meet with her rabbi, study Hebrew more intensely, conduct a worship service and perform a yearlong community service project before her bat mitzvah rolled around on May 9 this year.

It was finding a significant project to benefit the community, though, that brought her anxious moments.

"I really didn't know what I was going to do," she said recently. "I was dreading it a bit. I was kind of excited. I just didn't want my life to get any busier."

It is the same anxiety many Jewish boys and girls who are close to their 13th birthday experience if they choose a public celebration of their acceptance of the religious, spiritual and ethical responsibilities of adulthood in the Jewish community.

For boys, the term is bar mitzvah or "son of commandments," and for girls it is bat mitzvah, "daughter of commandments."

"The origin of the idea stems from the Bible, where the young person at some time has a change of status in the community," said Rabbi Marc Kline of Temple Adath Israel and Abigail's rabbi.

Over thousands of years, people created ways to celebrate that change, he said. "Bar mitzvah became the moment when the young man would stand before the community in front of the Torah and accept his place as an adult member in the community."

The celebration did not include girls until 1922, when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan allowed his 12-year-old daughter to step to the bimah, or pulpit, of his synagogue in New York to recite a blessing, read from the Torah in Hebrew and English and then say the closing blessing. It reportedly was the first bat mitzvah in the United States and perhaps the world.

Before that bold move by Kaplan, who belonged to the Conservative branch, members of the Reform branch did away with bar mitzvahs altogether because girls were not included.

Kline, of the Reform branch, said a confirmation ceremony was created by reformers in the 1800s for girls and boys, and raised the age to 16.

"Truth is, a young adult has to do nothing to become a bar or bat mitzvah," Kline said. "When they become of age, they are bar or bat mitzvah. Their status changes simply because of the age. The ceremony is a public celebration. Not everyone does it even though everyone's status changes."

So why do it?

"It is a challenge, a statement of accomplishment and public acceptance and ceremony," Kline said.

And probably because parents and grandparents want another reason to be proud, I would think.

The candidate is required to learn Hebrew; many have studied it throughout their lives.

"I sit in a position of honor and watch my students run the entire worship service, including having written and preached their own sermon," Kline said. The students read from the Torah scrolls in Hebrew and give their sermon in English.

And, to reinforce a sense of communal responsibility, each candidate must perform a service project. Kline meets with his candidates — between 5 and 12 a year — for 30 minutes each week, making sure they fully grasp what is expected of them as Jews.

"My job, as I see it, is not to teach a child to regurgitate Hebrew," Kline said. "My job is to create a sense of responsibility in that child for his or her self and for his or her community. Not just the Jewish community. Justice is not 'just us.'"

Enter Abigail's anxiety.

She couldn't think of a project she wanted to do to help society. Then, along with her mother, Lisa Miller, they visited the Florence Crittenden Home, where young pregnant girls and young single mothers are supported, empowered and equipped with the skills to become independent.

"We saw the babies, and I just wanted them to have a good life," Abigail said. "I thought it was pretty cool that (the young girls) had a school there so they could learn how to be good moms and get a good education."

During her visit, Abigail learned that the home needed educational toys. One toy in particular, a portable elliptical play ring that is a multi-sensory developmental skill center, costs about $320. She decided to make purchasing that ring her project.

She chose to take embroidery floss and work several strands into a friendship bracelet to sell. She set up a table at her Sunday religious school, selling them for $4 to $6.

With help from her mother and sister, she made enough to send a supply to Henry Clay High School with her sister to sell. After sales slowed, she added buttons to the bracelets. She has now earned nearly enough to buy the play ring.

All kinds of interesting projects have been chosen, said Kline, who places two limits on what students can choose: "It has to be legal and it has to be something that your family can accommodate."

One of his students, Ben Swanson of Lexington, cared for a puppy for Pilot Dog, Inc., a guide dog training program. Ben housebroke the pup and acclimated it to various outlets including the temple and movie theaters so it could, after a year, be returned to be trained as a guide dog. Nancy Schoenberg, Ben's mother, said Ben liked working with the dog so much, he is on his second puppy.

Benjamin Karp, a University of Kentucky music professor, said his son Aaron gets friends together to give concerts at nursing homes for residents. Aaron's bar mitzvah is May 23.

How are the plans for the event going?

"Aaron's fine, but we are way behind," said Karp, who attends Ohavay Zion Synagogue. "It's like preparing for a wedding with out-of-town guests."

Not only is there food, guests and maybe another party later, but bar and bat mitzvahs usually mean the young person will receive gifts. So, if Abigail doesn't sell enough bracelets before May 9, she will take some of her monetary gifts to make up the difference.

That's in keeping with Kline's requirement that the students donate 10 percent of the worth of their gifts to charity.

He said he also asks his students to keep a journal, noting five new things they observe each day.

"We walk sightless among miracles," he said. "If these kids can broaden their vision, then they will know a whole lot more about what is going on in this world, and be more prepared to not only to live in it, but to change it."

It seems to be working.

"I'm really glad that I did it and could make a difference," Abigail said. "I didn't think I could do all that much."

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