Dozens of bereaved girls gather for group bat mitzvah celebration in Jerusalem

New York-based family of Ruth Werthenschlag, 12, sponsors joint event for those who have lost immediate family members to terrorism, accidents, and illnesses

Girls from bereaved families celebrate their bat mitzvahs in a group event in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)
Girls from bereaved families celebrate their bat mitzvahs in a group event in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)

Girls from 70 bereaved families in Israel were given an evening of joy in the midst of their grief as they celebrated their coming of age in a group event in Jerusalem last week.

Organized by the Koby Mandell Foundation, the event was sponsored by the Werthenschlag family from New York in honor of daughter Ruth’s bat mitzvah. It was produced by event planner Adena Mark.

The girls at the event had lost immediate family members to terror before or during the October 7 massacre, as well as to other causes, such as car accidents and illnesses.

Mark explained that the idea for the event came when Ruth and her family were preparing to celebrate her bat mitzvah: “They felt that something was missing for them when celebrating in New York while knowing that there was a lot of sadness in Israel,” in the wake of the Hamas-led October 7 terrorist massacre that saw 1,200 people brutally murdered and 253 abducted.

The Werthenschlags, who have worked with Mark in the past, asked her to help them think of how they could bring some joy to people in Israel in honor of Ruth’s bat mitzvah.

“Ruth felt she couldn’t celebrate her bat mitzvah without giving back to Israel,” Eliana Braner (nee Mandell), executive director of the Koby Mandell Foundation, told The Times of Israel.

After being approached by the Werthenschlags, Mark got in touch with the Koby Mandell Foundation and asked it to help locate bereaved families with girls who were celebrating their bat mitzvahs this year and invite them to the event.

Girls from bereaved families celebrate their bat mitzvahs at a group event in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)

“They wanted the girls to feel happy and special,” Mark said.

To that end, the girls were greeted by volunteers of the foundation at the entrance to the venue with gifts of candy and lip gloss, and were directed to arts and crafts stations that included photo album decorating, making accessories adorned with fresh flowers, and yarn crafts.

Mark said that the Werthenschlags and the event’s organizers agreed that they did not want vendors to volunteer or donate materials and services for the event, as they wanted to take the opportunity to support local businesses.

“I mostly tried to get vendors whose sons or husbands were serving [in the IDF], are in reserves, or had some connection to what is happening in our country, so we’re really helping people who need it,” Mark said.

Following the reception, the girls were greeted by Braner and watched a video message from Ruth, which she had worked hard at delivering in Hebrew, though she is not fluent.

“The choice to gather here together and live our lives is the legacy left to us by our forefathers,” she told the girls.

Ruth Werthenschlag speaks in a video message to girls from bereaved families celebrating their bat mitzvahs at a group event in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)

Despite the distance between New York and Israel, Ruth continued, she felt they could all celebrate “and feel joy together as long as our hearts are open,” adding that “our power is in our unity.”

After Ruth’s video message, Braner took the girls aside for a discussion circle on how they could celebrate their bat mitzvahs while feeling grief, and how to include their lost parents or siblings in the event.

Her own bat mitzvah, Braner told the girls, was only a year and a half after her brother Koby — for whom the foundation was named — was murdered in a terror attack. Her other brother had celebrated his bar mitzvah just six months prior to her bat mitzvah celebration, and the two chose to have vastly different events. While her brother chose a muted and intimate celebration in a café, Braner chose to have a big party with music and dancing.

“My message [to the girls] is that whatever they choose to do is okay,” Braner said. “If they want singing and dancing, that’s okay, and if they want something more muted and intimate, that’s okay too.

“I just want them to know that they’re allowed to be happy, and they’re allowed to smile and live their lives, and that doesn’t mean that they’ve forgotten and that they’re okay now. It means that they’re living.”

During the discussion circle, the girls were asked to share how they wanted to celebrate their bat mitzvahs and how they would choose to honor the parent or sibling they had lost.

Eliana Braner leads a discussion circle with girls from bereaved families celebrating their bat mitzvahs in a group event in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)

Like Braner, many of the girls expressed that they wanted to feel joyful for this milestone in their lives even given their grief. Most of them described wanting big parties with music and dancing. The majority also said that they would mention their departed parent or sibling in their speech and slideshows.

Talia, who lost her father in a car accident a few years ago, shared that she had celebrated her bat mitzvah last month.

“I involved my father in the celebration by ‘inviting’ him to the party,” she said. “We screened a video where I went to visit his grave and put an invitation on it and prayed.”

Noa’s brother was killed in the war in Gaza three months ago. She also celebrated her bat mitzvah last month.

“I mentioned him a little, but not too much because I know he was there with me in a different way,” she shared.

A make-up station at a group bat mitzvah event for girls from bereaved families in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)

Tzofia, who lost her mother, said that while she did want her mother to be honored at her bat mitzvah, she did not want it “to turn into a memorial ceremony.”

Other girls said they wanted to celebrate their bat mitzvahs by traveling, throwing a pool party, or focusing on family.

After dinner, the girls and their families were treated to a performance by popular Israeli singer Ishay Ribo, who started by performing a new song that is set to come out in the coming weeks.

Before beginning his performance, Ribo met with one of the families who had lost a daughter, Cpl. Danit Cohen, in Hamas’s October 7 onslaught.

The family told Ribo that Danit had put on one of his songs the day before, while the family was preparing for Shabbat, but that her mother had asked her to turn it off because it was too sad.

Danit turned the song off, but made her brother promise to keep playing it for their mother because she said it was a song about hope. The next day she was at her base in Nahal Oz when Hamas launched its terror offensive and she was killed.

Ishay Ribo performs at a group bat mitzvah event for girls from bereaved families in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)

During the shiva, or week of ritual mourning, Danit’s mother was reminded of the song and asked her brother about it.

“It was like she knew what was going to happen,” she told Ribo.

The Koby Mandell Foundation was founded by Koby’s parents Sherri and Rabbi Seth Mandell, after he, at the age of 13, and his friend Yosef Ishran, at 14, were abducted and stoned to death by terrorists in 2001.

The foundation aims to help bereaved families who have lost a parent or sibling to terrorism, as well as to other causes, like accidents and illnesses.

“It started with a summer camp and now we have activities for the entire family,” Braner said.

The services include camps for the children in the summer, on Hanukkah, and on Passover, as well as day trips for the families and support groups. Some of the kids who attend the camps grow up to become voluntary counselors, Braner said, which creates a community for the families.

Koby Mandell Foundation founders Rabbi Seth and Sherri Mandell and Executive Director Eliana Braner, Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Rebecca Kowalsky)

“After October 7, we doubled our programming,” Braner said. “We have retreats for bereaved people and we have support groups for mothers and widows from the war.”

In general, she added, the activities for families grieving after October 7 have been held separately from other activities thus far, but the foundation felt it would be more suitable to bring everyone together for this evening of celebration.

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