Year after hyena attack, women mark bnot mitzvah

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The event, led by Rabbi Michael Barenbaum and Cantor Rita Glassman, marked more than a rite of passage.

"It's been a year of healing, self-exploration and religious growth," Stephanie Simborg said.

The experience also reminded both women what it means to be Jewish and part of a Jewish community, whether in Marin or on the other side of the world. It was, as well, the catalyst for a newfound spirituality.

Their journey began in August 1995, when Stephanie Simborg lay in a hospital in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, deep gashes on her face and arms and fortunate to be alive. She had been attacked by a 150-pound hyena while camping with a group from the National Outdoor Leadership School.

It took 12 hours for her companions and guide to get her to the hospital in the country's capital. Her parents were notified, but it took two days for her father, Don, to arrive.

She was traumatized and in pain but not alone. Nairobi's Jewish community immediately came to her aid, treating her as one of their family. With only 200 families, mostly Israelis and a smattering of Americans and other nationalities, Kenya's Jewish community is small but closely knit.

Her first visitor was Charles Szlapak, head of Nairobi's Jewish community, who came as soon as the hospital notified him a Jewish woman had been admitted. For the next eight days, Nairobi's Jewish community became the Simborgs' surrogate family, bringing flowers, books, movies and even chicken soup.

"When Stephanie was younger she used to ask me why did it matter to her that she was Jewish living in Marin County," Madeleine Simborg told the congregation. It was a question she could not answer at the time.

But her daughter found the answer halfway around the world.

"The Jewish community of Nairobi came to help me simply because of a shared Jewish identity," Stephanie Simborg said at the ceremony.

Before last year, Madeleine and Stephanie Simborg had little involvement with Judaism. Although the family had belonged to Rodef Sholom for a decade, neither of the women had learned Hebrew or pursued a Jewish education.

Madeleine Simborg, an attorney in Corte Madera, grew up in a suburb of Chicago where, she says, "it took no effort to be Jewish." Besides, she says, "when I was growing up,[studying Hebrew] was a boy thing, not a girl thing."

Although Stephanie Simborg's younger brother Mark, 22, celebrated a bar mitzvah, she directed her non-school time to competitive gymnastics.

But Nairobi changed all that. While in the hospital, she spent hours talking to Michele Sumka, an American who had been living in Kenya for six years. They explored what being Jewish meant and they prayed. The night before the Simborgs left for California, they celebrated Shabbat together.

Not long after returning home, Stephanie and Madeleine Simborg made a commitment to learn Hebrew, read from the Torah and celebrate a bat mitzvah.

Over the course of the past year, Stephanie Simborg underwent several surgeries to minimize her facial scars, as well as hours of physical therapy. The family said they gained a true understanding of what generosity to those in need means. And they discovered a spiritual side.

"Stephanie's face may be scarred," said her mother during the service. "But her mind isn't."

Mother and daughter credited friends and family with helping them get through the past year. The presence of Sumka and her husband, Howard, who now live in Maryland, extended that sense of community beyond the walls of the synagogue.

Now, the young woman who will enter Harvard Business School in the fall, a year later than planned, is a different person from the one who was accepted.

The mother who will see her off is also a different person. Don Simborg, presenting the tallit to his wife, said, "It is with mixed emotions I see you finally becoming a woman."