SWAMPSCOTT – Those who attended Liora Ragozin’s bat mitzvah on Sept. 5 at Congregation Shirat Hayam, both in person and virtually, will probably remember it for her eloquent d’var Torah speech on the struggle between the desire to treat everyone equally and the desire to be unique.
“I want people to recognize that I’m a Jewish girl, different from other religions and other genders. I am proud of my identity and I celebrate it,” the 13-year-old said in an essay that drew not only from a passage from Isaiah but from tensions elsewhere in the Old Testament about the role foreigners might play in the rebuilding of Jerusalem.
This balancing act of equal treatment and the celebration of one’s uniqueness is one that is playing out today, she said.
The bat mitzvah of the daughter of Rabbi Michael Ragozin, the spiritual leader of Congregation Shirat Hayam on Atlantic Avenue in Swampscott, also showed how bar and bat mitzvahs can overcome the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
This includes the need for social distancing, masks, and limits on the size of indoor gatherings. The restrictions precluded rows full of family and friends, and a large party later with a DJ or band and the dancing of the hora.
It meant many from near and far could not attend. But the small size turned out to be a blessing when it came to Liora and her family being able to spend time with guests, or just focus on Liora’s big day.
“Although there were some very important people who could not make it in person, I loved the intimacy of Liora’s bat mitzvah,” said her mother, Sarah Plymate, in an email, “and that I could focus all of my attention on my daughter and the moment.”
“It’s a communal celebration and I think everyone is working really hard for these moments to be celebrated,” Rabbi Ragozin said.
Normally, the whole congregation would have been invited, he said, with a luncheon after the service. In this case, the congregation was invited to watch online.
About 18 people attended in-person in the sanctuary, while another 350 viewers watched online, including family and friends in Seattle, Rotterdam, and California. Liora read the Torah on a bimah surrounded by plexiglass panels.
There was no large party after, but a small backyard gathering with tables spread apart from one another. “Since I had to make these adjustments, I got to talk individually with my friends more.” Liora said. “It does make it more personal.”
The next day, Liora and her friend, Jasmina Kurtovic of Marblehead, went horseback riding as an added treat.
“I think that it’s a testimony to resilience and to the sense of life can go on and can continue,” said the rabbi, who has three children, Liora, an eighth-grader at Marblehead Community Charter School; Noam, 10, a fifth grader at the same school; and 2-year-old Aleza.
Ragozin said despite all that is going on with the coronavirus pandemic, Jewish children are still turning 13 and want to celebrate their new status in the Jewish community. He said the kids in general have embraced the changes to these celebrations due to the pandemic, with a greater emphasis placed on the sanctuary ceremony, which can be performed as close to normal as possible.
“I give a lot of kudos to the kids,” Ragozin said. “For them, they miss out on one of the really big parts of celebration, which is to get together with their friends.”
Liora said having a dad as a rabbi was helpful when it came to learning her Torah portion.
“He’s a really good teacher so it was good working with him,” she said. Liora also worked with Elana Rozenfeld, the former cantor at Shirat Hayam, to learn to chant the Haftorah.
Liora went to Epstein Hillel School in Marblehead from third to sixth grade and learned Hebrew with teachers Tali Bloom and Tali Marotz.
At the temple, Ragozin works with bar and bat mitzvah students on the preparation of their d’var Torah speeches. Ragozin said it was special to be able to work with his daughter, and to be able to take more time with her to craft it.
Another highlight of the service was the singing of the daily Ashrei prayer, with Liora and her little brother taking turns.
“It was really fun and special to do Ashrei with my brother,” Liora said. “Sometimes we fight a little bit, but it was good to do it with him, it was fun.”
“It was really sweet to see the two of them chant it together, to know it well,” the rabbi said.
Liora said the plexiglass panels around the bimah allowed her to take off her mask while speaking, singing, and chanting.
People who came up to do their Aliyah blessings before and after the Torah readings would stand apart from her and keep their masks on.
Those having the honor of doing the blessing in-person included a set of grandparents from Seattle, her aunt from Seattle, and Kurtovic and her mother, Alex Shube.
Online, three grandparents and a great aunt and great uncle had the honor of doing the blessing.
As swag for her friends, Liora designed T-shirts with the depiction of a wave on it along with her initials and the date of her bat mitzvah. Her silk tallit came from Advah Designs in Norwood, while she wore a necklace that belonged to her great-great grandmother.
Liora’s speech was based on her Haftorah reading of Isaiah, Chapter 60, which dealt with what Liora called “a radical universalism for his time” as Isaiah saw how foreigners could play a role in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, in stark contrast to isolationist sentiments in the Book of Ezra.
“I liked the Haftorah because it was the first time Isaiah expressed the idea of inclusion and inclusion of foreigners in an activity,” she said. “Today we are still working on including everybody and treating everybody equally, like Isaiah was trying to do.”