A surplus of 13-year-olds and a shortage of Shabbat mornings often means sharing the bar or bat mitzvah experience with a partner. While "sharing" customs vary from synagogue to synagogue, the b'nai mitzvah typically co-lead many of the prayers, divide the Torah and haftarah readings and each deliver a d'var Torah.
When Hannah Marek shared her Shabbat Sukkot bat mitzvah at Congregation B'nai Jacob in Woodbridge, Conn., with "partner," Marion Pritchard, it was Hannah alone who lead the entire service, including Shacharit, Hallel, the Torah service, Torah and haftarah readings, d'var Torah, Musaf and the Hoshanot. Pritchard said only a few words. But these words lead to unprecedented clapping, tears and even a standing ovation -- for both 13-year-old Hannah of New Haven, and for 82-year-old Pritchard.
"When Marion came up to the bimah and gave her little talk, I was biting my lip not to cry," Hannah admitted.
Who is Marion Pritchard and why would a Jewish girl choose to share her special day with a non-Jew more than six times her age?
Pritchard is a soft-spoken psychotherapist living in Vermont. She is also a "Righteous Gentile." For her bat mitzvah, Hannah wished to recognize and honor the work of such people as Pritchard, who helped save and rescue Jews during the Holocaust.
Pritchard grew up in the Netherlands. When the Nazis occupied her country, she witnessed such horrifying acts as children being tossed on to trucks. These events affected her deeply. In 1944, when a friend (a member of the resistance) asked her to find a hiding place for a Jewish man and his three children (including a baby), she agreed. She hid them in a space underneath the living room floor in a house in the Dutch countryside, about 20 miles from Amsterdam. On one occasion, two Nazi officers came to her home, searched, but found nothing. On a second visit, this time by only one officer, he heard a baby crying and discovered the hidden family. Pritchard immediately took a gun, which was hidden behind a bookcase, and killed the officer. She even arranged for the body to be taken away and buried.
Hannah learned of Pritchard's work in several ways: First, her older sister, Miriam, had shared her bat mitzvah with Pritchard two years ago. And even then, Pritchard was no stranger to the Marek household. Mother Deborah Dwork, a professor at Clark University and founding director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, had met Pritchard at an academic conference. And she invited Pritchard eight years ago to co-teach a course at Clark. The two now co-teach four separate courses on a rotating basis.
"I am an analyst historian; she is a participant historian/rescuer," Dwork noted. "When [Pritchard] sits at the top of the seminar table each fall and speaks, the 18 students in the class are totally silent."
Dwork speaks with great admiration about colleague and friend Pritchard. And she describes the accomplishments and qualities of her daughters in the most glowing terms. Dwork was pleased when daughter, Miriam, naturally stood up and went up to the bimah at Hannah's bat mitzvah to help the somewhat frail Pritchard down the stairs ("The entire congregation stood up and applauded while Miriam escorted Marion," Dwork said). And Miriam has kept in touch with the director of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous since her bat mitzvah and will serve as an intern there this summer.
Dwork is proud of the extensive role Hannah chose to have in the Shabbat Sukkot service. But she is especially pleased with Hannah's motivation -- and with Hannah's ability to articulate the meaning of the bat mitzvah to B'nai Jacob's Rabbi Richard Eisenberg, in a private pre-bat mitzvah meeting in his study. He was so moved that he felt compelled to share with the congregation some of Hannah's profound observations and insights.
"Being able to recite the entire service -- that's what religion is to me," she said. "It's important to me to know all of it. If I was the last Jew alive, I'd be honoring my people and culture to be able to lead the service and to teach others. I loved learning at the Ezra Academy [Solomon Schechter Day School in Woodbridge] for six years and I plan to send my children there in the future."
Eisenberg noted, "For Hannah and her family, the service was not only about Hannah, but about the legacy and heritage of Israel and the Jewish people, and about honoring the memory of the victims and the heroism of the Righteous Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews. The twinning is a testament to this theme. Marion's presence in shul was a most powerful complement to Hannah's coming of age, because this is all about memory, history and, God-willing, a bright future."
For more information about the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, including their Twinning Program and the Rescuer Support Program, visit www.jfr.org .
This article originally appeared in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.