Boy and his mom are called to Torah in shared bnai mitzvah

Like many Jewish boys his age, Jason Zavaleta spent the last year preparing for his bar mitzvah. But what made his experience very different was that someone else in the same household — and not a sibling — was preparing for her bat mitzvah. It was his mom.

On Saturday, March 13, Jason, 13, was called to the Torah, and so was his mother, Denise Zavaleta, 44.

Denise, a nurse, and Jason live in Walnut Creek. Denise said that she grew up in a non-religious home, where she attended synagogue only a handful of times. She attended religious school, but not Hebrew school, and said she always felt a spiritual connection.

Jason’s father, to whom Denise is no longer married, is a Buddhist, and one of her sisters is Christian.

About three years ago, Denise began feeling like she had erred in not giving Jason a Jewish education. So she asked him if he was interested in attending Hebrew school. He was. But in thinking about educating him, she realized she wanted the same thing for herself.

So mother and son began to learn Hebrew together, studying with a tutor who came to their home. Shortly after, they began attending services, and joined Beth Chaim, a Renewal congregation in Danville.

“I had been introduced to Rabbi Dan [Goldblatt] years ago,” she said. “I always had a sense that that’s the place I belong.”

When Denise first approached Goldblatt and student rabbi Arik Labowitz about sharing her son’s bar mitzvah, both clergy had their reservations.

“Generally speaking, the more involved the parents are, the less the student has space to develop on their own,” said Labowitz. But eventually, the two changed their minds, especially since Jason seemed so favorable to the idea.

In fact, he thought it was “cool.”

“Not a lot of kids can do it with their parents because they’re either not Jewish or they had theirs already,” Jason said. “So I thought it would be pretty fun since Mom never had one.”

When they began learning their Torah portions, mother and son would go into their own rooms to practice, and then they’d reconvene in the living room. “We’d sing to each other and tell each other how good we did,” said Jason.

“They really supported each other in the learning process, more than any parent usually could,” said Labowitz, who trained them in chanting. “They would both come in incredibly excited about their progress together.”

So on Saturday, in front of 115 friends and family members, Denise and Jason were called to the Torah.

“What has been most incredible is my personal journey of finding my voice as a pathway to God,” Denise said in her d’var Torah. “I have spent almost my lifetime thus far claiming that I don’t sing. I know how to silently pray to God and turn inward to a quiet place within …”

But through her preparations, she said, “I slowly began to shed the skin of ‘no, I don’t sing,’ to singing from a soul space as my prayer to God. It has been a huge transformation.”

So much so that Denise began teaching in the religious school this year.

One of Jason’s most moving experiences was when his grandfather gave him the tallit that he himself had used.

“It was an amazing blessing that he gave me,” said Jason. “He said about how to be a mensch, to be a good person, and respect everyone else and the different religions.”

In a conversation two days after his bar mitzvah, Jason said, “I definitely feel changed by it. I feel like I have a different sense of how I live my life now.”

As for Denise, her bat mitzvah “was unbelievable. I think I’m still experiencing it. I feel like I’m in a spiritual bubble bath.”

Labowitz found the mother-son combination most interesting, and complimentary.

“Jason had a typical 13-year-old bar mitzvah process and Denise had a profound transformation,” said Labowitz. “So those two put together equal a very different experience than an ordinary b’nai mitzvah.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."