Director of religious education, Beth Israel – The West Temple
Debbie Chessin learned her lessons well at her bat mitzvah in Johnstown, Pa. Her reminiscences suggest they prepared her for what she’s doing now.
The big date for Chessin was Oct. 20, 1979. Her synagogue, a hybrid, was the Beth Sholom Congregation. Beth Sholom combined the traditions and prayer books of Beth Zion and Rodef Sholom, respectively the Reform and Conservative synagogues a dwindling Jewish population could no longer support.
Chessin suggests she was a good student and calls herself a perfectionist. Not only did she attend Sunday school, she also took two hours of Hebrew each Monday and Wednesday all the way through her bat mitzvah.
Her Pennsylvania congregation had high expectations, she says. Thoroughly schooled by the rabbi and the cantor, along with parent volunteers who taught the Sunday school classes, Chessin was ready to lead the Shabbat services on her big day.
“It was more than just reading the tropes,” the music symbols in the Torah, she says, speaking of the rabbi with affection. “He actually taught me how to read music.
“I led the entire service, Shabbat service followed by Havdalah,” she adds. “I read or chanted most of the prayers, mostly in Hebrew with some English, and chanted from the Torah.” While there was no haftorah, she chanted four to six aliyot, had a d’var Torah, “and we had a party in the social hall at the temple.”
The service went well. Aside from thinking her voice was too high – “Maybe my voice was different then” – Chessin doesn’t recall making any mistakes “because I am a perfectionist by nature.
“I worked so hard preparing for it, I can tell you I did not make any mistakes, like in my pronunciation, my chanting, my anything.”
The party went well, too. About 180 people joined in, and Chessin had fun with kids she knew from Beth Sholom, Sunday school and other parts of the community.
Things were different then.
Today, kids get cash at their mitzvah party, Chessin says. Back then, Israel bonds were big, as were checks and jewelry. Chessin got jewelry with a Star of David, along with earrings. She also received some Israel bonds, “and some money which I saved for college.”
As for her party moves, Chessin conjures the Bee Gees and John Travolta.
“It was 1979. Remember ‘Saturday Night Fever’? We had taken a lot of line dancing in school, mostly just line dancing with girls and boys together. I was a pretty shy kid.”
Except for when she was behind a lectern.
This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah