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With the lights out, it’s amazing: Herzl girls come of age in Mercer Island’s perfect storm
A girl only has one bat mitzvah.
Hired caterers, carefully rehearsed ceremonies, relatives arriving from foreign countries, parties of matrimonial proportions and months of religious study cannot be called off simply because the weather has delivered a state of emergency.
The families of Kira Weiner and Rachael Okrent had very little time to panic on Dec. 15 before they got phone calls from leaders of Mercer Island’s Herzl-Ner Tamid synagogue assuring them that the show would go on.
On the first night of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, the power to Herzl and many of its members went off - and stayed off all weekend. “Here we were at 9 a.m. on Friday and we knew this bat mitzvah had to happen,” said Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum. In store for the coming days was a temple service for 100 people that night and a dinner for 65, a ceremony Saturday in the synagogue with nearly 400 people and a luncheon to follow, all capped off with parties for the 13-year-olds that night.
“Friday morning when we got a conference call from the rabbi and the executive director, it was very clear to us that by the time we got the call, they had already done a lot of work to make sure it would go through,” said Rachael’s father, Aaron Okrent of Kirkland.
Of utmost importance was getting power to the kitchen. Under conservative Jewish law, all food must be cooked in the synagogue to ensure that the preparation has been kosher. Herzl had a generator sufficient to power the kitchen, but it broke. Maintenance and clerical staff alike went to work repairing the generator and managed to get it running again.
The caterer, Teresa Carew, had to prepare three major meals in 24 hours under what Rosenbaum called “absurd conditions.” Not only did she have other events to handle the same day, her own house in Seattle had suffered damage from the storm. Fortunately, in anticipation of the weather, Carew had stayed late at the synagogue on Thursday night to cook as much as she could before the storm hit. That meant the Herzl staff who oversee the kosher preparation worked overtime as well.
Okrent’s mother-in-law, who was in town from Spokane, also stayed late with the kitchen staff. “She made the challah for my wedding and my son’s bar mitzvah, and power be damned, she was going to make the challah for my daughter’s bat mitzvah, too,” Okrent said.
Rosenbaum said the next challenge was securing the safety of the temple, which was going to be in pitch black. Board members showed up on Friday evening with candles and lanterns, which they placed throughout the synagogue, in bathrooms, stairways and hallways, to make sure people could find their way around without getting hurt.
“The Maccabees came into the temple and only had enough oil to light one candle,” said Rosenbaum. In the story of Hanukkah, the Jewish ancestors’ miracle of stretching their light for eight days gave birth to the Hanukkah tradition. “Here you also had people making their own light.”
It was by candlelight that Kira and Rachael read from the Torah, raising their voices as loud as they could to fill the giant sanctuary that normally has the luxury of a microphone. Throughout the more than two-hour ceremony, the girls huddled together under a blanket brought by one of the board members to keep warm, finding themselves sorely underdressed for the cold in their bat mitzvah finery.
“I couldn’t stop shivering,” said Kira, whose south-end Island home still had no power as of Thursday. “But I think it was more special. It felt kind of cozy.”
Many members of the congregation showed up for the services and festivities despite having no power themselves. The meals were conducted by candlelight, as was the party at Kira’s home on Saturday night, with a live jazz trio and family from as far away as Israel and South Africa.
With many of their friends turning 13 this year, Rachael and Kira have had their share of bar and bat mitzvahs to attend. But this one, they said, was one that no one would forget. “It really showed how everyone came together,” said Rachael.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Kira’s father, Ian Weiner. He had not expected such enormous support from the entire congregation to make sure his daughter’s bat mitzvah happened, and the community effort overwhelmed him with gratitude. “Here it’s this big moment and you’re completely humbled by the elements. Then out of the fear and stress of conflict comes a realization of what’s important,” he said. “That’s the miracle.”