By Hali Ahlfeld (Guest Voice)
Her knee bounces nervously. “It’s now or never,” says Bryna Dilman as she gets up to walk to the bimah.
On the advent of her 30th birthday, Bryna Dilman decided it was time to have a bat mitzvah.
She stands in front of 60 pairs of eyes, belonging to members of the Yachdav congregation, friends and family at the Wolfond Centre for Jewish Campus Life on Spadina and Harbord in Toronto.
This is a big moment for Bryna. She is not only entering a new, important decade of life, she is choosing to commemorate the moment with a religious rite of passage, one that she regrets not having done when she was 12.
As a child, Bryna admits, “I wasn’t very interested in Judaism or Hebrew school, I think because it was pushed upon me, and seen as something I had to do.”
Her mother, Yona Dilman agrees. “The part she never really cared for was going to shul because she couldn’t read Hebrew.” But she adds, “Bryna didn’t like [Hebrew school], she didn’t appreciate it, and she hated to go.” Yona thinks Bryna felt discouraged because, at the time, her peers were in classes above her, and that embarrassed her.
Bryna thinks back to a pivotal conversation with her mother. “She said, ‘Just one more year of Hebrew school and then you can have a Bat Mitzvah.’ I remember her saying those things but I had no interest. I told her I didn’t care if I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I begged my mother to stop making me go.”
And so, Bryna stopped going.
After a visit to Israel on an organized trip in 2001, Bryna saw the Jewish culture and religion in a new, positive light. She felt connected to the country and the language in a way she had not expected.
“I began learning more, but then it kind of died out a little,” she says.
It was not until a subsequent trip to Israel this past summer with JUMP, Jewish Urban Meeting Place, that Bryna developed an avid interest in learning about her Jewish roots, and in being more active within the community. It was through her JUMP experience that Bryna’s desire to adopt a greater presence of Judaic culture and language into her life fully developed.
“I really missed being in Israel and not understanding Hebrew, not knowing how to speak it, read it, or to feel any connection to the country except for my own emotional attachment to it.”
After much thought and consideration, Bryna told her friends and family that she wanted to celebrate her 30th birthday with a bat mitzvah. To her, it was the best way to combine her interest in Jewish culture and her desire to learn Hebrew.
“I think a lot of people probably thought it was a great idea, but didn’t believe it was going to happen.” Says Bryna.
“It was shocking at first,” says David Silverberg, Bryna’s bat mitzvah teacher. “You don’t hear about that too often and it’s certainly the first time I’ve taught someone over the age of 13.”
“But,” he concedes, “I think it is great when people can find the faith later on and feel like there’s no deadline to do it. It’s great that our religion kind of allows that.”
Yona agrees. “I’m tearing. I’m so, so proud that she’s done this on her own.”
Bryna has taken complete responsibility for all that goes into putting together a bat mitzvah.
“There is definitely a cost to it all,” she said with a laugh. “But, it feels so rewarding to know that now I can read Hebrew and I’m having a bat mitzvah. I think I value it more as an adult than I would have as a kid.”
Since she began studying for her bat mitzvah in November, Bryna has realized that no dream is too big. “I think for a lot of my childhood, I was confined by my fears. Fears of failing, of looking stupid, of not being able to do something I wanted to do.”
“Learning Hebrew and singing in front of 60 of my friends and family is fearful, but it’s also exciting.”
“It sounds very cliché, but it’s inspiring now to know that when I really want to do something, I can do it.”