Cut of love Giv­ing my bat­mitz­vah mean­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - CLAIRE BLAK­ENEY

IAM NOT a jour­nal­ist, but a mother to a girl who cel­e­brated her bat­mitz­vah last month. I wanted to make that ex­pe­ri­ence mean­ing­ful for her and for our fam­ily, and to take on the chal­lenge of do­ing some­thing sig­nif­i­cant in the knowl­edge that this was one op­por­tu­nity where she alone could make a dif­fer­ence.

Anya has of­ten wor­ried about the home­less, so this was a start­ing point to ex­plore some char­i­ties. We found Crossroads, a gem of an or­gan­i­sa­tion, through My­is­rael, and did our re­search. Af­ter a few emails back­wards and for­wards we ar­ranged to visit Crossroads which is lo­cated in Jerusalem, near Ben Ye­huda Street. We were both blown away by what we saw. Crossroads helps hun­dreds of at-risk and home­less teens in Jerusalem. It is the only char­ity that specif­i­cally sup­ports English­s­peak­ing teens.

We were met by a so­cial worker who kindly showed us around and spoke to us all about the needs of the chil­dren who use their ser­vices. We saw a walk-in cup­board full of dif­fer­ent-size clothes so the teens could change… some­thing my chil­dren cer­tainly take for granted! We saw a li­brary where they could chose a book to es­cape into and watched art ther­apy ses­sions tak­ing place. The teenagers had ac­cess to so­cial work­ers for sup­port and could also use a num­ber of com­put­ers to search for jobs or com­plete on­line cour­ses in or­der to bet­ter their life chances. It felt like a pos­i­tive and in­spir­ing place and we com­mit­ted to rais­ing some much-needed funds to help.

The next de­ci­sion was how we were go­ing to help. What was Anya go­ing to do? She had toyed with the idea of cut­ting her pre­cious long hair and do­nat­ing it; how­ever, she felt too wor­ried and scared to com­mit to what she felt was some­thing quite dras­tic. We were four months away from her bat­mitz­vah and needed to start mak­ing de­ci­sions.

Then some­thing hap­pened that will stay with me for­ever. On a trip to Is­rael in Oc­to­ber 2016 I had ar­ranged a tour guide to show three gen­er­a­tions of our fam­ily around Yad Vashem. Our guide, a won­der­ful, warm South African wo­man, knew Anya’s bat­mitz­vah was soon ap­proach­ing. In one of the rooms she called Anya over to a glass dis­play cab­i­net. In­side was, among some arte­facts, a pho­to­graph of a 12-year-old girl called Lili Hirsch, her older brother, and her par­ents. Anya im­me­di­ately likened her­self to Lili, hav­ing an older brother her­self.

The guide told Anya Lili’s story. Be­fore the war Lili and her fam­ily lived in Tran­syl­va­nia. When the de­cree was is­sued or­der­ing all the Jews to leave their homes and re­lo­cate to the ghetto Lili’s mother, Rivka, wanted to cut off Lili’s long hair. Rivka knew the con­di­tions in the ghetto would make hair care

Lili had to have her hair cut for life in the ghetto

im­pos­si­ble, how­ever Lili re­fused to part with her long plaits. Her mother promised that her pre­cious plaits would be stored in her fa­ther’s tal­lit bag and kept with a trusted neigh­bour. On those con­di­tions Lili agreed.

Af­ter six weeks in the ghetto the fam­ily were trans­ported to Auschwitz-Birke­nau where Rivka and Lili were sent to the gas cham­bers. Lili’s fa­ther and brother sur­vived and, in Septem­ber 1945, they re­turned to their home. All that re­mained of their fam­ily’s be­long­ings were Lili’s plaits stored in her fa­ther’s tal­lit bag and left with their neigh­bours. Fa­ther and son took the braids with them as a last­ing me­mory of Lili and their life be­fore the war be­fore both set­tling in Is­rael in 1962. In the glass cab­i­net at Yad Vashem, we saw Lili’s plaits in her fa­ther’s tal­lit bag.

Anya knew then that she had to honour Lili’s me­mory. She de­cided she was go­ing to cut her hair. Lili did not have a choice and Anya did. Lili did not have a bat­mitz­vah and Anya was about to cel­e­brate hers. Lili did not have a fu­ture.

We cel­e­brated Anya’s bat­mitz­vah and dur­ing the beau­ti­ful shul ser­vice, Anya kept an empty chair for Lili. She told Lili’s story and hon­oured and re­mem­bered Lili on her spe­cial day. It was Anya’s day and it was Lili’s day too. The fol­low­ing week Anya cut her hair and we took it to Zichron Me­nachem who will use her hair to be made into a wig for a child with cancer. To date she has also raised al­most £1,200 for Crossroads.

My mes­sage is twofold. Firstly, if you have a bar or bat­mitz­vah com­ing up then try to think about a way to make it mean­ing­ful. Start with some­thing that con­cerns or in­ter­ests your child and take it from there. You never know where it may lead. It has added a di­men­sion to our fam­ily sim­chah that would not have hap­pened oth­er­wise.

And fi­nally, please re­mem­ber a 12-year-old Jewish girl with beau­ti­ful long plaits called Lili. May her me­mory live on.

Clock­wise from right: Anya Blak­eney ; Anya hav­ing her hair cut, and her plaits ready for do­na­tion; Lili Hirsch’s plaits in her fa­ther’s tal­lit bag; and Lili with her fam­ily

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