Isolated rural Jew celebrates bat mitzvah at N.C. summer camp

ATLANTA — The Rossman family — Bernard, Donna and their children, Andrew, 16, and Marni, 13, — live in Athens, Tenn., about an hour outside of Knoxville.

Unlike the Bay Area and other communities, which have hundreds, or even just a few Jewish families, and dozens of synagogues, the Rossmans make up Athens' whole mishpacha.

So when the time came to plan Marni's bat mitzvah celebration, she thought of the place that has most helped define her Jewish identity — Blue Star Camp in Hendersonville, N.C., where she has spent the last seven summers.

"My brother had his bar mitzvah in Israel, which is what we were going to do for me," said Marni. But the situation in Israel was deemed too dangerous, requiring the family to rethink its plans.

The Rossmans are members of Temple Beth-El, a Reform congregation in Knoxville, and they drive more than an hour each way on Wednesdays and Sundays for Hebrew and religious school. With Marni's other activities — she plays on the Athens Junior High School soccer, basketball and tennis teams and takes jazz, tap and ballet — that makes for a hectic schedule.

The distance also made it difficult for Marni to make many friends in the Knoxville congregation.

"My kids feel like Blue Star is the best part of childhood. It's so much of their Jewish identity," said Marni's mom, Donna. In March, the family e-mailed Rodger Popkin, Blue Star Camp's owner and operator, to see whether organizing a bat mitzvah at summer camp was possible.

"I remember when the e-mail came. I groaned initially. We're really not set up for these things," said Popkin, "But then I thought, this is the right thing to do. It's a mitzvah. You'd have to be heartless to say no."

Popkin recalled two other Blue Star bar mitzvahs in the last 30 years. "One was for a caretaker's child, who is Israeli and lives at camp, and the other was a family with especially awkward circumstances," he said, declining to explain further.

During July 6 Shabbat services in Blue Star's outdoor Elmore Solomon Chapel, Marni was joined by her parents, her grandmother, Helene Friedler of Connecticut, and her best friend from Athens, Sara Mitchell, along with hundreds of Blue Star campers, as she was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah. (Her brother was at a three-week course at Yale University and was unable to attend.)

"It was really fun having all my friends there. My friends from my cabin kind of dressed up. They decorated our cabin with mazel tov signs and made me feel special," said Marni.

To celebrate the occasion, tablecloths, flowers and a few more desserts were added to the Blue Star Shabbat lunch.

Marni was motivated to learn her Torah portion, said

Cheryl Epstein, Blue Star's living Judaism director and Marni's Hebrew tutor at camp. Each morning at 9:30, while her cabin mates were busy with the daily clean-up chores, Marni worked with Epstein on her Torah and Haftarah portions.

"I met with Marni for the first time in person at camp less than three weeks before her bat mitzvah. We had very little time to prepare, but Marni's parents were eager to make this happen and so was I," said Epstein.

"I thought it would be really special if Marni's friends from her cabin could take part in the bat mitzvah service," Epstein added. And her cabin mates jumped at the chance.

"We all had a part in the service and were so excited," said Emily Zale, 13, of Dallas, who has been a Blue Star camper with Marni for years.

"We did all of the prayers, sat with her on the bimah and read a special poem at the end of the service we wrote just for her."

Emily said the girls, many of whom had already celebrated their bat mitzvahs at home, helped Marni practice her prayers and Torah portion in their cabin.

Marni says religion "is not a big thing" with her friends in Athens, and although she is the town's only Jew, she feels accepted. She is involved in community service, helping out at a shelter for abused children with her friends of all religions.

Her best friend's father, Dr. Foy Mitchell, handcrafted a beautiful wooden Star of David as a bat mitzvah present, which Marni was given on her bat mitzvah morning at Blue Star.

Some of her cabin mates wrote letters home telling their parents about the upcoming celebration, and some sent bat mitzvah gifts for Marni in packages from home.

"Marni spoke beautifully about how important this was in her life," said Popkin. "The campers saw that this was not like the bar or bat mitzvahs at home. They were even a little less fidgety than usual. It really modeled a lifecycle event stripped of pretensions."

"The presents part really didn't matter," said Marni. "I was just glad that my friends could be there."