by Maya Kovach
Every one of my Jewish experiences―especially since I moved away from home―has been influential to me as I develop my Jewish identity, and I hope to continue growing into myself throughout the rest of my life. When I think of turning points in my Jewish journey, many milestones stand out to me as particularly enlightening, but by far the biggest one was the unique opportunity I had in preparing for my Bat Mitzvah.
Growing up, I always assumed my family identified in that awkward and contradictory “Conservadox” space that tries to define Jews displaying a mish-mosh of liberal values and traditional practice. We kept Shabbat and kashrut, attended day school until eighth grade, ate vegetarian food from non-kosher restaurants, wore bathing suits (but G-d forbid, never bikinis!) at the beach, and floated comfortably between several synagogues in my neighborhood in Albany, NY. My parents, it turns out, identify themselves as “Community Jews”. As such, for my Bat Mitzvah learning, they prescribed a regimen of no fewer than ten different educators to teach me that week’s parsha.
The educators I learned with were inspirational Jewish women from every facet of our little Jewish community. This included a Conservative Rabbi who works as a chaplain in the prison system, a Jewish meditation instructor, a Chabad Rebbitzen, a woman with a Ph.D. in Midrash, a teacher with a passion for Jewish jewelry, a Reform Rabbi with her own goat farm, and more. Each woman brought her own unique perspective to teaching me the parsha―Parshat Lech Lecha, which discusses Avraham’s physical and spiritual journey. Their teachings spanned a historical perspective on his literal trek, spiritual insight into his relationship with G-d, rigorous linguistic study of the text itself, and an emotional view on the power of Avraham’s wife, Sarah. The most incredible thing about that experience was that each woman truly had something to teach me, about the parsha as well as about me and my Jewish identity. Through this experience, I began to view Judaism less as many different things with broken links and even friction between them and more as a woven tapestry of viewpoints, personalities, and nuances.
My Bat Mitzvah learning taught me to be a global Jewish citizen in every sense. I now have a strong appreciation for the fact that there is no right or wrong way to be Jewish. Whatever viewpoints I add to my repertoire add new and glistening threads to my tapestry. I can approach every Jew with respect, admiration, and fierce curiosity to learn everything that person has to teach me.
The biggest takeaway from this experience was to always be comfortable with myself in my Judaism no matter how I express it, as long as I am expressing it. It helps me to know that my family and my community are supportive on this journey, and although I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have that opportunity, it delights me to realize that I can be that community for others on their own journeys. This is the power of Hillel―to be the pluralistic community that educates on, recognizes, validates, and values every Jewish journey and Jewish expression.
How fitting that my Bat Mitzvah parsha was Lech Lecha. It is an annual reminder to me to reflect on my own personal Jewish journey.
Maya Kovach is the 2018-2020 Springboard Innovation Fellow at Hillel at UCLA. Want to see a super embarrassing picture of Maya from that awkward Bat Mitzvah age? Shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org