Executive director, Temple Emanu El
Renee Higer remembers preparing for her May 5, 1979 bat mitzvah as vastly different from the way students prepare today. For starters, she recalled her haftorah from quick memorization and rote rehearsal, whereas students today at Temple Emanu El in Orange, where she is now executive director, often understand the Hebrew words and start learning earlier.
Higer, however, may have been at a disadvantage from the start – her tutor and cantor at Congregation Beth Am, then in Cleveland Heights, both thought they had assigned her the haftorah, when in reality neither had – and by the time they realized it, she only had a month to learn it. Thanks to listening to the Torah portion on a cassette tape, though, everything went smoothly, and Higer has fond memories of the occasion.
“I remember looking out at my parents and brother and sister and feeling like it was this really positive, happy experience,” she says. “For me, school was pretty tough – I had some learning issues – and so I remember just feeling really accomplished.”
Overall, as someone who was family-oriented, Higer was simply happy to have an event at which her entire family was present.
“I grew up in a very Jewish household, and we clearly knew that Judaism was important to us,” she says.
However, that close family relationship didn’t prevent Higer, who was then 13, from engaging in a little mischief with her friends during the party, which took place at a now-remodeled and renamed hotel on Chagrin Boulevard in Beachwood. One of her best memories from the day – other than the red-and-white-checkered tablecloths that matched her invitations – was that she and her friends took a tray of partially full wine glasses people neglected to finish and drank them in the hotel’s arcade room.
“It was this funny thing – we were drinking the rest of everyone else’s wine,” she says, explaining they each probably had only a few sips.
Much has changed, however, Higer says. Her former Conservative synagogue merged with B’nai Jeshurun Congregation in Pepper Pike in 1999, and Rabbi Michael Hecht, who performed her bat mitzvah, died earlier this year. Also, religious schools today typically offer more options for training for bar and bat mitzvahs that focus on individuals’ interest in Jewish life rather than uniform standards, she says. Thus, they better prepare students for the special day in a way that is meaningful to them and reflects their knowledge.
She says her daughter, Codie Higer, who is now 23 and had her bat mitzvah at Temple Emanu El in 2007, could chant her haftorah and knew what it meant, and her learning experiences made the event significant for her.Additionally, she says many religious learning programs today “are not your mother’s religious schools,” and better keep students interested in learning.
“Most of our kids continue on after bar or bat mitzvah, and I think it is because of the type of program we are able to do now, (which) is more focused on appropriate developmental learning.”
This article appeared in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.