This story began 22 years ago. Twelve-year-old Amy Israel was a sixth grader at the Hebrew Academy of Albany, New York. She had been asked to write a poem about Shabbat and to submit it to a special project that was underway.
What had prompted the request for the poems was a book that was to be published by the Shabbat Candle Lighting Campaign of the Lubavitch Women’s Organization. Initiated by the Rebbe in 1975, the Campaign had flourished under the directorship of Mrs. Esther Sternberg. The book Mrs. Sternberg undertook to publish would be entitled, “A Candle of My Own” and would contain original poems and compositions by Jewish girls from around the world.
Over the years Amy became more and more involved in Jewish observance with the help of Rabbi Yisroel and Rochel Rubin, the Rebbe’s emissaries to Albany. Amy now went by her Jewish name, Emunah. She married Ron Sohn, and they had four children. Eventually, the Sohns moved to New Jersey.
When her eldest daughter, Eliana, neared her twelfth birthday, Emunah asked how she would like to celebrate this special event. Suggesting that perhaps a trip to Israel would be meaningful, Emunah was taken aback by Eliana’s response.
“Oh mom, no big party,” Eliana replied. “I’ll just take a couple of friends to Disney World.”
Emunah was surprised that a trip to Disney World was her daughter’s idea of what would be an appropriate way of celebrating becoming an adult in Judaism. Although Eliana attended a Jewish day school, Emunah realized that she needed to supplement her daughter’s education in this area.
And so, Emunah phoned Nechama Laber, who, together with her husband Rabbi Avraham Laber, is one of the Rebbe’s emissaries in Troy, New York. Nechama had been Eliana’s teacher at the Maimonides Day School when the Sohns lived in Albany.
Emunah knew that Nechama Dina had organized a Bat Mitzva Club for girls in fifth and sixth grades to help them learn about the special journey they were about to embark upon as young Jewish women. In fact, each year Nechama Dina would ask Emunah to speak with the pre-teens about such diverse topics as cultivating friendships, maintaining relationships and even hygiene. Emunah had seen the club from the inside out and was sure that if her daughter would be a part of the Bat Mitzva Club experience she would grow and mature as a young Jewish woman.
“Are you still running a program for Bat Mitzvah age girls?” Emunah asked Nechama. Nechama explained that for various reasons she had not intended on running the club that year. Emunah offered to sponsor the first club meeting at her mother’s home in Albany and Nechama agreed to undertake organizing the club.
The Bat Mitzva Club was publicized at Maimonides’ Day School and at the Hebrew Academy of Albany. Emunah and Nechama Dina had expected about eight girls to attend the initial meeting and were delighted when 20 girls showed up from all walks of Jewish life. Thus began a monthly two-hour journey for mother and daughter from New Jersey to Troy. And the relationship between Emunah and Nechama that had begun years earlier deepened.
The end of the school year was fast approaching. Nechama Laber called Emunah and asked her to speak at the special banquet that was being organized for all of the girls who had participated in the Bat Mitzva Club, their mothers and grandmothers.
“A number of girls will be reading original poems,” Nechama Dina informed Emunah. “And we’d like you to speak at the banquet as well.”
“Poems?” Emunah asked. Emunah recalled a conversation with Nechama a few years back. Nechama had been looking through a copy of A Candle of My Own and had noticed a poem written by Amy Israel of the Hebrew Academy of Albany. That was when Emunah had discovered that the poem she had written when she was her daughter’s age was published in the book.
“Do you have a copy of “A Candle of My Own” so you can read me my poem?” she asked.
Nechama found the book and read the poem to Emunah, who had not heard the poem in 22 years. Then Emunah heard the page of the book turn and Nechama gasped in delight. On the very next page was a photograph of four-year-old Nechama gazing into a lit candle. Nechama had never before noticed that her picture and Emunah’s poem were back-to-back. The two women marveled at how their lives intertwined at so many pivotal moments.
Emunah agreed to speak at the Bat Mitzva Club Banquet, knowing that she would tell this very story of her growing involvement in Judaism, her search for a meaningful way for her daughter to celebrate her Bat Mitzva, and how Nechama Laber and the Rebbe’s Candle Lighting Campaign had brought things full circle.
Eliana will shortly be celebrating her Bat Mitzva, but not at Disney World, she is currently attending a three-week Bat Mitzva Camp in Troy, together with 30 other girls her age. And Nechama Dina likes to share this story of Divine providence and how every good action we do can have a ripple effect that impacts not only on our own family but throughout the world, as well.
The author, Dena Laber Fox, is the sister-in-law of Nechama Dina Laber.
P.S. Thank G-d, the Bat Mitzvah Camp has evolved and has expanded and is called the Jewish Girls Retreat today. We just concluded our summer session with 80 campers and 40 staff members and look forward to our (JGR) Jewish Girls Unite Winter Retreat in December.
For more information about the retreats, visit www.jewishgirlsretreat.net