OyChicago articles

18 Things that Happened at Your Totally Awesome Bar or Bat Mitzvah

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Chai List photo

Your bar/bat mitzvah was the best of times and the worst of times – and definitely the most embarrassing of times. But not when you were 12 or 13. Back then, it was the totally most awesome of times – awkward body issues aside.

In honor of Back from Birthright Israel’s annual Bar Mitzvah Bash, we thought we’d celebrate the best throwbacks to the social events that dominated our middle school years.


1. You were greeted by relatives you didn’t even know existed

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2. Your party had the coolest theme ever … which is now totally embarrassing

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3. You had your picture taken “reading” the Torah

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4. Your speech was SO smart and funny, especially that joke about your sibling putting up with all your Hebrew chanting

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5. You asked all your relatives and your BFFs to come light a candle with you

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6. You fulfilled your 13-year lifelong dream of being hoisted up in a chair

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7. Everyone watched an unnecessarily long montage of your life that included naked baby pictures

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8. You strategically planned out who all your Snowball partners would be

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9. You did a choreographed dance with the DJ’s backup dancers that brought down the house


10. The boys were “flirting” with these backup dancers for your entire party

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Credit: Solepowerproductions.com


11. At one point, everyone felt hot hot hot

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12. You and your friends wore a fabulous combination of hats, sweatpants, shades, socks and inflatable instruments

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Credit: Everythingdjs.com


13. You munched on mozzarella sticks and chicken tenders and washed it down with an endless stream of kiddie cocktail, followed by a candy buffet

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14. You were a dance master at the “Macarena,” “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Cha Cha Slide”

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15. You stood in a circle and sang “That’s What Friends are For”

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Credit: Partyperfectorlando.com


16. You went home and immediately opened all your envelopes and presents

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17. And were frustrated when you learned what a savings bond was

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18. You became a “man” or “woman” and your life changed forever

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Changing course

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A Jewish Navy chaplain discovers her life’s true passion

Changing course photo

Chaplain Lt. Emily Rosenzweig

Lieutenant Emily Rosenzweig knew she wanted to be a rabbi from a young age growing up in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

After her rabbinical ordination, she headed out to Columbus, Oh., where she served as an assistant rabbi and director of education at a Reform congregation for five years.

As much as she loved the congregants, she felt like the business of what it takes to run a modern synagogue consumed her time. Her world grew smaller, and she felt isolated from the non-Jewish world that she had always connected to in the past.

She was yearning for something different—but she didn’t quite know what. Then, a series of events in her life converged, leading her to change her course.

First, she was paying close attention to the war abroad. “All the news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the news on the home front about what war was doing to our men and women, tugged at my soul,” she said.

Around that time, she saw a TV movie called Taking Chance, based on a true story. Rabbi Rosenzweig related to the main character, a Marine Corps officer, played by Kevin Bacon, who felt unfulfilled pushing papers back home so he accompanies the body of a fallen marine home for burial.

At the same time, Rosenzweig noticed a blurb in a Jewish newsletter with a call out for new Jewish chaplains.

So she answered the call and joined the military—choosing the U.S. Navy.

When she joined, she was asked how she’d feel about taking orders. “Taking orders from people? I worked with the [synagogue’s] sisterhood so that’s no problem,” joked Rosenzweig, who resides in Evanston with her husband.

And with that, she was on her way. In 2012, she completed basic training in Rhode Island followed by Navy chaplaincy training in South Carolina.

The chaplains she trained with represented 12 branches of various religions, 20 people total, including three women. Rosenzweig says although she recognizes a different leadership style exhibited by male versus female colleagues—similar to the differences she saw between the genders in the rabbinate—she has felt very little gender discrimination as a chaplain.

In April of 2012, she was stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes, the U.S. Navy’s only boot camp, located in North Chicago. There are some 300 Jewish recruits at Great Lakes, out of approximately 36,000 total recruits.

A chaplain’s chief role centers around caring for the recruits. She or he focuses less on the daily activities of the military, and more on the spiritual needs and comfort of the men and women serving in uniform.

The challenge lies in meeting the spiritual needs of all recruits—no matter what religion they identify with. How do you make the spiritual component universal enough that everyone feels their spiritual needs are met, but particular enough that the person delivering the prayer is comfortable with it?

No matter what one believes, comfort is a universal concept. “I can’t pretend to be the Muslim chaplain because I’m not a Muslim chaplain,” Rosenzweig said. “I’m the Jewish chaplain who can speak with a Muslim sailor about the death of a loved one because compassion is compassion is compassion.”

Rabbi David Bauman, an Orthodox rabbi, is the only other Jewish chaplain stationed at Great Lakes. He and Rosenzweig work closely with one another and offer options for two different religious services, coordinated by the Chicago Board of Rabbis, out of the same space, and they chant from the same prayer book.

Rosenzweig’s tour at Great Lakes ends in July; up next, she’ll be stationed in Hawaii, where she’ll work with a marine battalion.

She wants to dispel the myth that Jews don’t serve in the military. In fact, 1 percent of the U.S. armed forces is Jewish, some practicing Jews, while others not. “Jews have served in every major conflict in American history,” she said. “The history of Jews in the military is as long as the military.”

Her true callings she says, is to share the lessons of the Torah—whether it’s to congregants from a pulpit or to sailors in need of spiritual sustenance. “To see somebody find meaning or relevance in the Jewish tradition, whether or not it’s their tradition,” she said, “is what I was meant to do.”

Welcomed like family

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Welcomed like family photo

I went on Birthright the summer of 2013 because I didn’t get the advertising internship I applied for. What I could never have predicted was bawling tears of joy in the middle of the mikvah (ritual bath) in Safed, climbing Masada with a sprained ankle, or announcing I wanted to live in Israel the third day of my trip. What started out as a bet with my staff member turned into me picking up my life and spending five of the most transformative months in Tel Aviv.

As a hopeless romantic at heart, I started my journey to Israel with a boy. We were longtime friends who never gave a relationship a chance. When I was 21, I met a nice Jewish boy in Reno, Nev. That summer he went on Birthright and came back saying he decided to join the Israel Defense Forces and was moving to Israel in two months. I couldn’t understand how one 10-day trip could inspire someone to make such a huge decision. That is until I went myself.

Growing up in the music and theater community, I always considered myself a creative and intuitive person. So it came as no surprise that the mystical city of Safed communicated with my soul. I knew in that moment that my time in Israel was not close to being done. Right when I got back to Reno, I called the IDF boy I had still kept in touch with for three years. He was visiting Reno and after a few dates we decided to give the relationship a shot—in Israel!

I heard about Masa Israel while on the Birthright trip and after speaking with an advisor over the phone, I decided to take a five month internship in Tel Aviv. I could not wait to start my journey despite my family being nervous about my upcoming adventure. “Don’t do this for a boy,” my family would say but I was convinced there were so many driving forces for me to go.

Two months before my journey, the relationship ended and I had to muster the courage to go across the world completely on my own. Thus began the experience that made me who I am today.

When I arrived in Israel I was greeted by a truly international welcome. Every day made me appreciate what I had and nothing touched my heart like working with the incredible team associated with the documentary film Sounds of Torture. This inspiring film focused on Eritrean asylum seekers who make their way through the Sinai desert only to get kidnapped at the Egyptian Israeli border. They are put into torture camps where they are physically beaten while calling come requesting large sums of money for their release. Just interacting with these brave souls made all my petty issues seem so insignificant. All they wanted was the simple thing I took for granted every day—freedom. Freedom to live, work, and be safe.

Israel started as a step in my relationship. Even though I ended up going alone, I never felt lonely. When I didn’t have a place to stay, I was welcomed into a stranger’s home like family. When I struggled to find a coffee shop, a man personally walked me there walking a mile out of his way. And when a man trying to start a new life was scared for his wife’s health, a community got together to provide her with medicine and a safe place to heal. What I realized was it gave Jewish people a true look into what it means to belong to a Jewish community. I will be forever grateful to Birthright, Masa Israel, and the IDF boy for changing my life.

Masa Israel Journey is the umbrella for 5-12 month programs including gap year, study abroad, and post college internships and volunteer placements. The programs are specifically designed to give each individual an immersive experience complete with interactions in the local communities, intensive Hebrew immersion ulpan, and trips all over the country. If you know anyone interested in participating on a Masa Israel program or want to find out more information go to www.masaisrael.org or email Tovah Goodman, the Chicago representative at tovahgoodman@juf.org.

Tovah Goodman is Engagement Associate for Israel Initiatives for the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

An interview with Piper Kerman

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'Orange is the New Black' author talks faith, friendship, and life in prison

An interview with Piper Kerman photo 1

As a fan of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, I jumped at the chance to talk with Piper Kerman and learn more about the real story of the woman whose experiences and bestselling memoir of the same name inspired the show.

In her book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman's Prison (Spiegel & Grau), Kerman recounts the year (2004-2005) she spent in the Danbury Correctional Facility for a crime she had committed 10 years prior—delivering a suitcase of drug money. With the support of her loving family and fiancé and the friendships of women she meets in prison, Kerman makes it through her sentence and leaves a prison reform activist and with an incredible story to tell.

The show, adapted by Jenji Kohan into an Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning original series for Netflix, is currently nominated for a Golden Globe in the comedy category. 

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Kerman, who lives in New York with her family, works in public interest communications, serves on the board of the Women's Prison Association, and delivers lectures to students, women's groups, and others on the issues of justice reform—will be visiting Chicago this month to speak at a JUF's Young Women's Board event. In advance of her visit, she spoke to Oy!Chicago about how faith played a role in her time in prison, what she thinks about the show, and what's next for her: 

Oy!Chicago: Why did you decide to write your story of your time in prison? What were you hoping your readers would take away from your experiences?

Piper Kerman: I really think that female prisoners, women in prison or jail in this country, are very emblematic of the kind of people we have chosen to incarcerate in the last 30 years that we never would have incarcerated before. People who have committed crimes who are not violent or people who have committed sometimes very low-level crimes, that's pretty typical of women in prison. And so I think that's important because the US has grown to have the biggest prison population in human history. No society has ever incarcerated so many of its citizens as we now choose to do. And that's worth a look and that's worth discussion and the lens of the female experience is a particularly unique way of looking at that.

How do you think you've changed people's perception of what life in prison is like?

First and foremost when we think of prisons or prisoners, we don't typically think of women first. So the very fact of my own story and who the book deals with confronts our assumptions about prisons and about prisoners. What I simply tried to do in the book was talk about who is really in prison in this country, what are the real reasons they are there, what are the pathways that people follow into prison and what really happens to people behind the walls of the jail because that is a world that is very intentionally hidden away from the public view so of course people are in fact very curious about it.

There are many mentions of faith throughout your book.  You say that your time in prison made you less skeptical about faith and also that in some cases it helped the women in Danbury see beyond themselves and focus on what they had to give. Tell us more about your personal experience with faith and the role of faith in prison.

Faith definitely plays a big part in the experience of incarceration—I think that's true for both men and women. A prison is a place where you see a lot of people relying on their faith as something that helps them get through what is a very difficult experience. In prison, people are forced to deal with one another, with people of different faiths. Because prison is of course exceptionally close quarters, you don't have any choice about who you'll be coexisting with and you see some interesting things play out in that realm. I think that's a really important and fundamental facet of the experience of incarceration.

I can tell you that in Season 3 of the show, an exploration of faith is an important part of the story line.

It seems like you made a lot of incredible friendships during your time in prison that helped you through your time.

I was very lucky I was able to afford really stellar representation.  I was able to afford a private attorney who spent a lot of time on my case and was a great lawyer—I'm so grateful to him. His last piece of advice to me when I was going to be sent to prison was 'don't make any friends, Piper.' And I think that was well-intentioned advice, but actually I don't know how you could possibly survive prison without friends. I don't know that anyone gets sent off to prison with the expectation that they're going to forge these very powerful friendships but that is what happens. I think that's an essential part of surviving the crucible of incarceration. Those women are so important to me and many of them are still part of my life today and I'm very grateful to them.

How does it feel to watch your story, though fictionalized, play out through the show. Do people confuse the show with your reality?

That may be but that doesn't really matter much to me. I think that Jenji Kohan has done a really phenomenal job—she is a brilliant woman and [it's] a very smart adaptation. I sometimes say that Jenji takes the book, she puts it into a blender, she puts a lot of other ingredients into the blender and then she pushes liquefy and I'm absolutely fine with that. [The character of] Piper Chapman is really a combination of Jenji's writing and Taylor Schilling's acting and I don't watch that character and think oh that's me, they're getting it wrong or they're getting it right. I watch it obviously with a different eye than most viewers, but still I'm really enjoying Jenji's adaptation.

Did you ever expect your book and then the show to take off as they have? Why do you think it is that your story is so engaging for people?

I think that every writer fantasizes success—you'd literally never finish a book if you didn't. But that said, I could never have imagined that all the things that have come to pass would happen. I think in a very simple way that the book and my own story offer people a way into trying to understand the question of mass incarceration, the question of why does America have so many prisoners, why do we put so many more people in prison than any other society in the world. That's an important question, for all people, particularly people of conscience. 

I'm sure you spend a lot of time talking about that year in prison. Tell us what you've been up to since then.

I'm very fortunate because I get to do the work that is important to me, and that's been true for many years before the book came out. I've done public interest communications work ever since I came home from prison and I'm really grateful for that. And the opportunities to talk to women's groups and to students on campus and to various and sundry other people in the community who are curious about these issues is really rewarding because these issues deserve a really good long consideration.

What's next for you?

I have a new book project which I will be beginning in the new year and I can't say much more about it. But it will remain focused on the criminal justice system and is set in the Midwest.

JUF's Young Women's Board Valor 2015 event featuring an evening with Piper Kerman, will be held Jan. 29 at The Art Center Highland Park. A $750 minimum individual women's contribution to the 2015 JUF Annual Campaign is required to attend. Couvert - $50. For more information or to register online visit www.juf.org/ywbvalor.

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