Marin bat mitzvah racks up miles, money for tzedakah

Like other bat mitzvahs, Laure Katz of Larkspur was looking forward to her May 1997 celebration with a mixture of nervousness and pride. She'd studied diligently to master Hebrew, and she'd completed the mitzvah project required by her temple, Congregation Rodef Sholom. But those achievements were not the only ones marking her coming-of-age.

In the year preceding her bat mitzvah, Katz completed 10 challenges — some of them physical, some emotional and some spiritual. The challenges, which ranged from volunteering at a homeless shelter to learning how to bake challah to spending a day in silence, were suggested by her parents, Steven Katz and Iris Gold.

They were inspired to create the challenges for their daughter after reading the book "Reviving Ophelia" by Mary Pipher. The book examines teenage girls' loss of confidence and their susceptibility to negative peer pressure, and Gold says that she wanted to prevent Laure from becoming an "Ophelia."

Perhaps the most remarkable of Katz's challenges was the one in which she created her own bike-athon to raise money for charity. Accustomed to cycling distances of up to 30 miles, Katz trained for a month to do a 90-mile ride. It was the last challenge before her bat mitzvah, and she raised $2,500 for the Breast Cancer Fund.

"The whole ride was a ton of fun," says Katz. "It was hard and tiring but I was really energetic, because I was doing it for a cause."

She and her family had decided that since she was becoming a bat mitzvah, it would be appropriate to give the money to a women's cause. And given that breast cancer rates in Marin County are among the highest in the country, the issue felt "relevant to my life," says Katz.

Andrea Martin of the San Francisco-based Breast Cancer Fund couldn't have been more delighted when Katz showed up with her check. "She broke all fund-raising records for her age group, and she's just a doll," says Martin.

In the opinion of Rabbi Stacey Laveson of Rodef Sholom, Katz is "an amazing young woman who is really an example of the essence of bat mitzvah."

Katz, who is modest about her achievements, says that she enjoyed all of her challenges — including the one where she and her mother went to a family friend's home to learn how to make challah.

"I felt like such a Jewish person, it was such fun," she says. "I'd always bought challahs every Friday, and never made one." She and her mother continue to bake their own challah occasionally.

Then there was the self-defense class, which she enjoyed but which made her mad — "not mad at my parents for wanting me to take it, but mad that society was so bad that I needed to take it."

But the challenge she enjoyed most, and became most committed to, was volunteering at Drawbridge, an arts program for children at San Rafael's homeless shelter.

"I definitely learned compassion, and strength," she says. "It was great to see how happy these kids were, even though they were living in a homeless shelter." She continues to volunteer at Drawbridge once a week.

"She's a really good kid," says Gold of her daughter. "We developed a much closer trust through doing the challenges together."

Katz agrees. "We bonded through it," she says. "We've always been close, but we got even closer over the year. It brought us together because we did so much as a family over the year."