She’s another 13-year-old Nirvana rock ‘n’ roll fan with long hair and a messy bedroom. She’d rather hang out with her friends than adults.
But unlike her seventh-grade pals at Sacajawea Middle School, Rachel Bender is Jewish. And this is the pivotal year when she turns into a woman.
Last week, her big event roared toward her like a wedding day. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins flew in from Los Angeles. A huge feast was planned.
Almost everyone in Rachel’s world was bound for Spokane’s lone synagogue to see her two-day bat mitzvah, to watch her lead 300 people in four hours of Jewish worship.
She was more than ready. She’d spent four years studying Hebrew. She’d been tutored by the rabbi. She’d already led some worship.
But this one was going to be very different.
There would be five times as many people. Most of her relatives would be there. So would her non-Jewish friends. What would they think about hearing her chant in a foreign tongue?
“I think they’re probably going to be pretty bored,” she said days before the ceremony. “I think they’re going to realize it’s important, but …” She was nervous.
There are few rites of passage as defined or challenging as Jewish bar mitzvahs for 13-year-old boys or bat mitzvahs for girls.
They come at a life juncture when the most prevailing concerns often are peer approval, cool tunes, puberty and adults who just don’t get it.
For a Jew, it’s more than becoming the son or daughter of the commandments, an adult in the congregation’s eyes. It’s a public test and performance more rigorous than most people ever confront.
For the small group of worshiping Spokane Jews, it’s perhaps an even bigger ritual. They’re more on their own. Most of their friends have no idea what they’re going through.
Rachel had to learn Hebrew so well she could read the ancient Scripture, much of which lacks vowels. Then she had to learn to chant it perfectly.
Rabbi Jacob Izakson gave her tapes of himself chanting so she could get the cadence right.
He described Rachel as a brilliant pupil. “She’ll be very calm, cool and collected,” he predicted.
The bat mitzvah began Friday night at 8.
Alone at the altar, Rachel told people what page to turn to, what to read, when to sit, meditate, stand. She carried herself with the serious ease of a trained gymnast in front of a large crowd. And when she chanted, her voice was as clear as a flute.
Rachel ran the hour-long service almost flawlessly. She did almost interrupt the congregation’s response once. “I was having troubles concentrating. I had never seen all those people sitting there watching me.”
She was looking ahead. She knew Saturday was the big day, the long service, reading directly from the Torah about the Ten Commandments.
She also worried her friends wouldn’t make it. Only one was there Friday night.
Turning 13 was a very different ordeal for Rachel’s parents, Bill and Berdine Bender. When they were growing up in Chicago, Jews were so common that public schools shut down on Jewish holidays. Synagogues dotted the city. Jewish delis were on street corners.
“We never felt isolated,” Bill Bender recalled. “We never felt different.”
In Spokane, on the other hand, the Benders bake their own Jewish bread, challah, if they want it fresh.
A lot of Jews “come to Spokane and drop (the faith) because there’s nobody to identify with,” Bender said.
Jews first settled in Spokane about 1890 when the city was at the end of the railroad tracks. Two small congregations merged in 1966 and built Temple Beth Shalom on the South Hill.
On Saturday morning, the temple filled slowly. Rachel scanned the crowd and found her non-Jewish friends in fine dresses in the back.
“Once I saw them, I kind of relaxed,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh good, they didn’t forget me.”’
Rachel chanted about Moses and the commandments, guiding the congregation through ceremonies that often concluded with people hugging and kissing her.
At perhaps the most dramatic moment, the Torah, the scroll that holds the Jewish Scripture, was passed from the rabbi to Rachel’s grandparents, to her father, to her mother, who then handed it to her.
Starting the generational chain of faith was Nathan Bender, who had been mouthing most of Rachel’s chants to himself. His own bar mitzvah still stands clear in his mind. It was on a Thursday in 1922 in Poland.
The decorative Torah looked heavy in Rachel’s arms when she hauled it through the congregation. People reached to touch or kiss it. Her friends smiled at one another. Wow!
During one later chant, Rachel sang so fast and clear that the rabbi joked afterwards about her speediness. She prides herself on it. She and her Jewish friends had timed one another with stopwatches at pizza parties.
As the service closed, Rachel spliced her thank-you speech with humor. She thanked her little brother, Aron, for all the “amens” he had offered from the next room during home rehearsals.
Then Rabbi Izakson, and finally temple president Ron Grossman, took turns praising her and welcoming her into adulthood.
Grossman told her she had accomplished something very few people ever get an opportunity to do. “The world needs more people like you.”
Rachel walked from the sanctuary, where Jews now see her as an adult, into a room covered with food, where she went back to being a girl again.
She didn’t sit with her family. She sat with her friends. They congratulated her. They claimed they didn’t get bored.
The teenagers sipped the ceremonial wine and laughed. “Nobody really got drunk … but almost” Rachel said, sounding very 13.