Bnai mitzvah times 3: Stanford students break from exams to study Torah trope

A typical college day: Wake up, slip on flip-flops, shuffle to class, study for exams, grab a slice of pizza, study for other exams, grab a burrito and study some more — for your pending b’nai mitzvah.


OK, so it’s not typical after all. But a quartet of Stanford students entered into a crash course last month at the campus Hillel, rapidly learning biblical Hebrew, practicing tropes and engaging in Torah study en route to their belated b’nai mitzvah on campus tomorrow.

And while the words “collegiate life” more readily conjure up images of all-nighters, reckless behavior and communal living situations in which no one will ever clean the bathroom, the four Jewish students have no problem defying the norm.

For all of them, the bar or bat mitzvah represents the growing role of Judaism in their lives. For one — a Soviet emigre — it’s an opportunity to be openly Jewish after growing up in a society that wouldn’t accept that. For all, it’s hard work: An hour’s study a week in class, at least an hour with a peer tutor and much individual study on top of going to Stanford.

The three students come from Jewish — and non-Jewish — backgrounds so variant that they seem perfectly matched for the b’nai mitzvah version of MTV’s The Real World:

*Oriana Mastro, 20, a sophomore, is the daughter of a Jewish mother and an Italian Catholic father from a large, very Catholic family. Hebrew is now her seventh language.

*Roman Berenblyum, 23, is a graduate student in petroleum engineering who grew up in Moscow, at a time when people didn’t strut their Judaism.

*Dina Wallin, 18, a freshman, is a Jew-by-choice. Her mother — also a Jew-by-choice — and father and even her rabbi flew in from Las Vegas for tomorrow’s ceremony.

“I’m not only doing this for myself because it feels right; it feels great, but I’m also doing it on behalf of the community,” said Berenblyum.

“It signifies me joining the community not only as a person receiving something, but as a person ready to participate more in the community in a sense of giving and being more involved.”

Mastro agrees. She has eclectic habits such as immersing herself in foreign cultures or wrestling — on the boys’ team, no less. For her, a bat mitzvah is a way of showing that Judaism is not a hobby.

“I’m always doing new things. I think, originally, when I started studying Judaism, people in my life saw it as something new I wanted to do. But for me, this is something more important and deeper than that. This is the physical manifestation of a lifetime commitment,” said the Chicago native.

“I think this is a great beginning. When I first came into the Jewish community, everyone was so supportive and encouraging. But it’s difficult; I’d never been to services before and I didn’t know the rituals. In ways, it was a little intimidating. Now I can enjoy it further when I go to services; I know what’s going on and I can read it.”

Wallin’s father is Jewish and her mother was raised Catholic. Wallin began attending conversion classes with her mother two years ago after they walked to a temple nearby their Vegas home for a Shabbat service and both felt “it was the perfect place for both of us.” She sees the bat mitzvah as her next step in Jewish life.

“It seems like all the other Jewish kids my age have had one, and when will I ever get this chance again?” she said.

“When I heard about the class, I thought it’d be awesome to get to read from the Torah and to make another milestone in Jewish life, but with the Stanford community now. I’ve made great friends here, and I wanted to make the next step with them.”

And, while procrastination is rarely rewarded at the collegiate level, the students’ families couldn’t be prouder.

Mastro’s Jewish family is “ecstatic…my great-aunt and uncle are so happy I’ve decided this is the path for me,” she said.

“Surprisingly enough, my Catholic family is equally as excited, because I was raised with no religion. So, my Catholic grandmother, who is extremely religious, is extremely happy that I believe there is a greater force, there is a God. For the past four years, every present I get from her is a Torah or books about Jewish people and Jewish life. She’s really excited about it.”

Berenblyum’s father, meanwhile, was overjoyed that his son took advantage of an opportunity that he didn’t have.

“In a sense, living in the Soviet Union, this is what he wanted to do, be involved in Jewish life. We were never able to do that, and he was happy to hear I can do it now, get involved and learn more,” said Berenblyum, who has spent the past six months studying at Stanford as part of an overseas program at the Technical University of Denmark, where he is working toward a Ph.D.

In October, the Berenblyum family may be making a visit to Israel first proposed in the early 1990s.

“I think it would be a completely different experience for me now than it would eight or nine years ago,” said a laughing Berenblyum.

The Hebrew classes and Torah study were also an adventure for the teacher, 24-year-old Joel Nickerson.

Stanford Hillel’s senior Jewish Campus Service Corps fellow aspires to the rabbinate and saw the class’ quick turnaround time as a challenge — which he appears to have bested.

“This is a way I can offer something to the students so they can have an opportunity to offer something to the wider community,” said Nickerson, an Oakland native.

“This was a great way to reach students in a different context than our social programs or going into the dorms on holidays. That’s very successful, but this is on a much deeper level.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.