Take a moment, I say to a nervous 13-year-old, a hand on his or her arm. Look out at the congregation. Loving faces gaze back.
They are your team, I say. And this is your “Shehecheyanu moment,” I explain, mixing the word for the Hebrew prayer of thanksgiving with the “Kodak moment” expression, although now I substitute “take a virtual selfie” or another more timely cultural reference.
As we both look into the congregation, I’m not sure who is more ferklempt (emotionally overwhelmed): me or the parents sitting with anticipation after many months of emotion-filled preparation.
I want to say to this child on the cusp of adulthood, standing next to me on the bimah: Savor this moment. Save this memory deep in your heart.
Your younger brother, squirming in a suit, may soon tower over you. Your grandparents, well, who’s to say what’s in store for any of us? Enjoy this precious time with them, and with your cousins, who may have flown in from other states. Get to know your aunts and uncles and your parents’ and grandparents’ cherished friends.
For the past 11 years I’ve had the honor of serving as gabbai rishon, the one who guides the recitation of the Torah, for dozens of b’nai mitzvah services at Congregation Bet Haverim, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta.
In that role, I explain what’s about to happen on the pulpit for those not familiar with Jewish tradition. I explain that the other person on the bimah with me is the gabbai sheni, who has likely tutored the bar/bat mitzvah and will help make sure the ancient words and melody are properly chanted.
I generally offer a brief tease of the Torah portion and invite congregants to stay tuned for the d’var, the speech the bar/bat mitzvah has likely labored over for months to showcase why the ancient text remains relevant — and possibly challenging — to a 13-year-old.
I often lead the Mi Sheberach prayer for healing, inviting people to share the names of their loved ones out loud or to keep them in the silence of their heart, before we sing together while the Torah is open. I make sure to have the laminated blessings in both the traditional and Reconstructionist wording available, along with extra tallitot (prayer shawls) to drape over loved ones’ shoulders.
Perhaps the most deeply moving part of being the gabbai rishon is the honor of calling family members and sometimes friends to the pulpit to chant the blessings before and after each section of Scripture is read. Singing aloud their Hebrew names, including the Hebrew names of their parents, I can almost see in my mind’s eye the generations standing among us, back through time to Mount Sinai, which is what I’ve learned the Torah service re-enacts.
When possible, I take the liberty (with permission) of adding personal details and, in the same melody, announce, for instance, that aunt and uncle so-and-so are also celebrating a wedding anniversary, or that this is the first time someone (other than the bar/bat mitzvah) is chanting Torah.
Together, we honor that special moment by singing the Shehecheyanu.
What never fails to touch me is the intimacy of the pulpit, which often feels like a sacred, timeless cocoon: It is as if the past, present and future spiral and commingle.
A grandmother who never had the chance to chant from the Torah at her own bat mitzvah holds the scroll open for her granddaughter. A grandfather takes the fringe of the tallit he wore at his own bar mitzvah and kisses the place where his grandson will chant.
Nearly 50 years ago, I was not allowed to chant from the Torah when I became a bat mitzvah at the “Conservadox” congregation where I was raised. Being on the bimah now, guiding that very service, I hold dear this sacred trust and hope that my contribution helps create a lasting memory for the adult-to-be, even if I embrace the idea that I am again standing at Sinai, having my own Shehecheyanu moment.
Audrey Galex is a producer/program content manager for the AIB Network, an Atlanta-based cable channel and online platform. Her work encompasses documentaries and current events/interfaith-focused interview programs.
She is the president of the board of Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta and on the board of the Friends of the Arava Institute. She belongs to Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist synagogue, and has been a participant and faith leader with World Pilgrims, including trips to Spain, Morocco, Israel and Jordan. She also participated in METS — Middle East Travel Seminars.
Audrey moved to Atlanta in 1987 as a writer/reporter with Cable News Network after a year as assistant bureau producer for CNN-Jerusalem. Before joining the network, she served as PR director at the Jewish Federation in Kansas City, Mo., and was a reporter/producer for KMBC-TV in Kansas City and a reporter/anchor at WQAD-TV in Moline, Ill.
Before receiving a master of science in journalism from Northwestern University, Audrey received her B.A. in international relations/Middle Eastern studies from American University, including an internship at the U.S. Department of State and participation in the United Nations semester program at Drew University and the junior year abroad program at the American University in Cairo.
Audrey was co-producer of “Facing Child Sex Trafficking: Atlanta’s Dirty Little Secret,” part of the national Facing Project engaging artists with social justice issues. She is also founder of the fledgling Abandoned Mattress Project, an emerging arts program aimed at partnering artists with homeless people to create multisensory public arts exhibits to foster understanding and activism.
Audrey is an active participant in InterPlay, an improvisational system that uses movement and storytelling to bring people together in the community and has begun creating ritual incorporating its principles. She is a storyteller and has performed at festivals and conferences individually, as co-creator of “Tapestry: An Arab-Jewish Storytelling Dialogue Project” and as a partner in a Sarah and Hagar project. She also helps individuals, families and organizations create digital histories, an offshoot of her work as co-founder of Roots & Wings Life Stories.
Audrey and her husband, Dave Schechter, have three children and are raising their two granddogs.