Reform Palo Alto congregation celebrates its first bat mitzvah

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It was a day of beginnings at new Reform Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto.

The congregation's first bat mitzvah, Shanna Elena Gerson Gilfix, led the Friday night service recently with visiting Rabbi Ari Cartun from Stanford Hillel. Gilfix was also the first graduate of Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School to become a bat mitzvah.

The congregation, which began holding services in the spring at the Women's Club of Palo Alto, welcomed its first Torah that night too, thanks to Temple Emanu-El of San Jose. And the worshippers that night were wrapped up in the Torah — literally.

"They unrolled the entire Torah around the whole room," said congregation president Michael Vinson.

"As it was unrolled, the rabbi read the beginning of each of the Five Books, and Shanna read the first aliyah when she got to it."

Said Gilfix's father, Michael Gilfix, "It was incredible."

First, "Shanna and Ari led the service, much more than a bat mitzvah would normally do," he added. "Then they `wowed' everybody — they unrolled the Torah around the congregation and wrapped the room in it, with everyone holding it, while Ari and Shanna read.

"It was a glorious sight. I'll never view the Torah the same way again; now I can really relate to it."

Shanna Gilfix, whose bat mitzvah took place earlier this summer, received her training at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, learning Hebrew and Jewish studies at Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School. Many of Etz Chayim's 12 families, who held their first services at the new congregation in February, had previously belonged to Beth Am.

Gilfix's bat mitzvah, which was continued the following Saturday at Beth Am, epitomized what Vinson and other Etz Chayim founders envisioned for the new congregation.

"Our primary driving force was the need for a feeling of community in the synagogue," said Vinson, "a smaller intimate setting where people know each other and it feels like family when you walk in."

Also, "on a personal level," he added, Etz Chayim members found it rewarding "to share the bat mitzvah of someone that close to the congregation after all the months of effort and hard work."

As Gilfix read from the Torah, she pointed with the silver yad (Torah pointer) she received as a gift from friends a few days before.

Her Torah portion continued the theme of new beginnings, which she emphasized in her speech to the congregation.

The reading was about five children — all daughters — who knew they were destined by law to lose their family land because of their gender. They approached Moses and asked that they be allowed to keep the land. Moses in turn asked God, who gave an unprecedented assent, and the daughters got their father's land.

"We've been very blessed with appropriate Torah portions," Vinson said. "Our very first one was the building of the tabernacle in the desert. Someone up there is watching out for us."