Sandra Razieli officiated Teva Goldstein's bat mitzvah in Maui, Dec. 2021. (Photo/JTA-Anna Kim Photography)
Sandra Razieli officiated Teva Goldstein's bat mitzvah in Maui, Dec. 2021. (Photo/JTA-Anna Kim Photography)

Mazel tov in Maui, courtesy of former East Bay tutor  

Feeling the sand between her toes was Teva Goldstein’s favorite part of her December 2021 bat mitzvah on the island of Maui. She and her family all wore white, accessorized with purple leis.

The beach in Hawaii was nearly 4,000 miles from her home in Dallas, another thousand miles from where she had lived for most of her life in Maryland. Yet her family had chosen it to mark her bat mitzvah, the moment when she would symbolically assume adulthood among the Jewish people.

The path to the beach was long and winding due to the Covid-19 pandemic, pitted with setbacks and anxiety. But it had brought Teva and her family in touch with a former Bay Area resident who is turning Hawaii into a bar and bat mitzvah destination.

Finding Sandra Razieli helped them finalize plans that had been thrown into turmoil by the pandemic — twice.

Razieli moved to Maui in 2017, thinking that her skills as a yoga teacher would be how she made her living. She assumed that the b’nai mitzvah tutoring she’d done for two decades for families at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont would be of little use on Maui, where one unaffiliated synagogue and one Chabad serve the small number of local Jews.

“I didn’t know I was going to continue doing Jewish stuff when I got here,” Razieli said.

Sandra Razieli holds a Torah scroll with Teva Goldstein during Teva’s bat mitzvah ceremony. (Photo/JTA-Anna Kim Photography)
Sandra Razieli holds a Torah scroll with Teva Goldstein during Teva’s bat mitzvah ceremony. (Photo/JTA-Anna Kim Photography)

She was wrong. Not only did Razieli start picking up work through Beit Shalom: The Jewish Congregation of Maui, but she also has begun carving out a niche serving mainlanders who choose Hawaii for destination bar and bat mitzvahs.

So far, she’s officiated at six b’nai mitzvah, including Teva’s.

If Beit Shalom gets a call from someone considering traveling to Maui for a lifecycle event, the synagogue sends the caller Razieli’s way. She has also officiated at a few weddings, and has a few more upcoming in the next few months.

Razieli said the decision to lead beachfront b’nai mitzvahs wasn’t totally natural.

“At first, it was challenging for me to think of officiating b’nai mitzvah away from [a Jewish] community, since the whole point of it is to say ‘I’m stepping into my community,’” she said. “But some don’t have that community at home. I want to provide an experience where they feel honored and welcome.”

Razieli was recently ordained by the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, a one-year online program that confers the title “rabbi” on its graduates. In the Bay Area, she led Jewish rituals and ran the b’nai mitzvah program at Kehilla, where she is known as “spiritual leader emerita.”

From her new locale, Razieli meets with families virtually, then makes custom prayer books for each event, asking families for their preferred language for God, for example.

Then she borrows the Torah from Beit Shalom for a ceremony at a beachfront restaurant  —  where the sight of a Torah scroll can definitely attract attention. “People are sunbathing and will see the Torah here,” she said.

And while that might seem discordant for some, she said, with such a stunning backdrop, it’s hard not to be in awe. “In some ways, it’s much more spiritual than being in a space with fluorescent lights,” she said.

That was the case for the Goldstein family, who ended up on Maui after canceling multiple other plans. First, a destination bat mitzvah in Prague was canceled because of the pandemic; then a rescheduled ceremony in Israel was scrapped because of the omicron variant.

During the first year of the pandemic, Teva and her family made the local news for creating and posting inspirational signs, such as “We are in this together,” around their Dallas neighborhood. But when the pandemic led to two bat mitzvah derailments, a now 15-year-old Teva was beginning to feel her resolve weaken.

“After learning two different Torah portions, and with everything still virtual, she didn’t even want to have one,” said her mom, Abby Goldstein. “That she didn’t feel much connection to it made us sad, so we decided it’s going to be low-key and easy for her.”

But Teva came up with one last idea, one that connected with her passion for the environment — perhaps preordained by her name, which means “nature” in Hebrew.

“I just wanted to do something out of the country, and since that wasn’t possible, it felt like Hawaii was the closest to out of the country I was going to get,” she said.

Abby booked tickets to Oahu. But after Teva found Razieli online, the family revised their plans one more time, making Maui their destination.

With little time to prepare, Teva was not interested in learning yet a third Torah portion, so she recited the blessings over the Torah rather than read from it. She and Razieli met a few times over Zoom to prepare.

“It was a really good experience. I liked how Sandra customized the service for me,” Teva said.

And the environment — far from what the family had originally anticipated — proved to be an essential element of the religious experience, Abby said.

“With such beauty, we were seeing God all around us,” she said. “At the same time, I felt such gratitude that even amidst the turmoil of the past two years, that we saw our daughter do this and make this connection with God. It was very meaningful for me to know that we didn’t give up, amongst everything, and I think it was for her as well.”

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."


Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.