The B’nai Mitzvah ceremony is one of the most anticipated and meaningful Shabbats at any synagogue, and especially at Congregation Beth Torah.
The celebrants commit to months of study and bravely ascend the bimah not because of any chronological imperative or family pressure, or the promise of gifts and parties.

They do it voluntarily, affirming their Jewish identities with joy and enthusiasm, each culminating a unique Jewish journey that adds another precious stone to a synagogue’s mosaic.

“These students are role models for our congregation and for me,” said Rabbi Elana Zelony. “To take on the challenge of mastering the service and reading Torah as adults is a deep commitment to Judaism. Our adult B’nai Mitzvah inspire me.”

The recent B’nai Mitzvah class at Beth Torah demonstrated how different paths led to a common goal. Each helped to lead services, read from the Torah and chanted the Haftorah, and told the congregation how they arrived to this special Shabbat. Here are their stories:

EMILY LEITNICK
Growing up, I was torn between several beliefs. My mother is Buddhist, while my father is Jewish. My friends at school were Christian. I knew from the age of 12 that I was not going to practice Buddhism, and when my father asked me to deepen my Jewish learning at 12, I felt unready to commit to a such an important life decision. By the time I was a senior in high school, I considered myself agnostic at best.

Then, early in my freshman year of college, I went through a personal crisis that affected me deeply. I was in a dark place. I slowly gave up God, but this ultimately led to a deeper depression.

Over time, I explored a variety of churches, temples, and other places of worship, but Judaism always stuck. As I continued getting older, I caught myself humming songs sung during Shabbat services and remembering prayers I learned as a young child.

It took me awhile to fully realize what my soul was trying to tell me. I finished college, started working and told myself I was too busy to explore my spirituality. Nevertheless, when the prayers of my past got too strong to ignore, I gradually began gathering courage to attend shul.

Though I was a bit overwhelmed at first (I attended alone), it still felt like I was coming home. The more I went, the less I felt something was missing. The strong feelings of community and belonging cemented my decision to choose Judaism, and I decided to continue with the full conversion process and have an adult Bat Mitzvah.

To say this process has been easy would be a lie. Truthfully, most of it was nerve-wracking. I nearly quit the B’nai Mitzvah class several times due to stress from work, personal life and my graduate student classes. However, upon completing this class, I realize it has been instrumental in the advancement of my spiritual life. Not only do I feel my journey has come full circle, but taking the class reaffirmed my choice in choosing Judaism and gave me a sense of accomplishment in my spiritual learning.

Through the overwhelming emotions came friendship and camaraderie with my peers and a sense of spiritual fulfillment. I am beyond overjoyed to have walked on the bimah, to have sung my Torah portion, and to ultimately come home to myself after all these years.

ELIZABETH RIDL
I grew up in a mostly nonreligious household, but something about Judaism has always spoken to me. As I got older I decided I would learn more about Judaism, so I began attending a Reform synagogue whenever I could. One of the factors in deciding what college I would go to was whether or not there was a strong Jewish presence there.

I ended up at UNT, where I became very involved in Hillel and made many friends that I am still very close to today. Through these friends I ended up at Beth Torah. I came to services when I could for several years, but did not have the time to devote to converting.

Beginning in August of 2017 I decided I would take the plunge and begin my conversion process. The class I took to convert was such a rewarding experience I decided I would take the B’nai Mitzvah class that Beth Torah was offering the next year. This class was equally rewarding. Several people from my conversion class were also in this class with me. I also met several people in the B’nai Mitzvah class that I am so thankful to have met, and will continue to be close with after the class.

Ever since I started going to CBT I have found everyone I encounter to be extremely welcoming. So many people have helped me with my Jewish journey. From helping me improve my ability to read Hebrew, to helping me figure out where we are in services, and especially helping me feel safe to ask the questions that I feel like I should know already but have forgotten. I truly feel at home at CBT. There is no other place like it.

MATTHEW MORRIS
My journey to Judaism actually started in Christianity, the religion and lifestyle I was raised in. It’s difficult to determine where the exact beginning of my journey was, but I’d have to say that it started with my questioning of the Christian church. The part of Christianity that most puzzled me was the fact that Christians tend to follow the apostle Paul’s instructions more than Jesus’s teachings.

This became even further highlighted to me when I started trying to evangelize my future wife. Since we are both scientists, I was determined to use facts rather than religious arguments to convince her of the trueness of Christianity. I figured it was also helpful that many of the things that Jesus preached were similar to concepts in Judaism. Most of the differences between the two religions were from commandments or revelations after Jesus died.

Of course, the largest difference was the issue of the messiah. I wanted to start at the fundamentals, so I was first going to find evidence of Jesus having been alive and performing miracles. That didn’t work since I couldn’t find proof outside of the Christian documents, and it is possible that documents have not survived through time. I ended up talking with a rabbi. I suspect I was wondering about Judaism more, since I was questioning Christianity.

All the evidence that he showed proved that the Christian understanding of many core beliefs were either incorrect or simply misunderstood.

So from that point, I had pretty much decided that I was going to convert. I had always believed in God, and I had felt like Judaism was the origin of Christianity, so it made perfect sense to go to Judaism once Christianity stopped making sense. The last deciding factor for choosing Judaism was that the meeting at Mt. Sinai was a group-witnessed event, so it was the scientifically most reliable.

Adding all that together, I came to the conclusion that Judaism made the most sense. And as I continued in my conversion class, everything made more and more sense, which solidified my decision. I continue to learn more about the Torah and Hebrew and Jewish traditions. I even decided to learn as much of the foundation of Judaism as I could, so I joined the B’nai Mitzvah class. My Jewish journey continues to be a learning and growing process, and always will be.

MYK DIAZ
Having a Bar Mitzvah as an adult sounded like such a strange thing to me, but at the same time it intrigued me. I felt as though something was missing, but I had simply accepted this as something that was gone and passed. As a relatively new member of Beth Torah, I found out about the Adult B’nai Mitzvah program. With much hesitation and fear, I ultimately decided to sign up.

My great-grandparents came to America in 1939 from Spain. They lived in a Sephardic community that was relatively new, having recently returned after Spanish exile. The fear of war forced them to make the difficult decision to move to the U.S – more specifically New Mexico – believing that there would be less of a language barrier there for them.

Life for them was difficult, bringing five children with them and no money. Unfortunately, this struggle continued for my grandmother, who grew up feeling as though she didn’t belong. My mother grew up with a very confused identity. Practicing Judaism at home, but with absolute resentment, and going to church during the week to hide being a Jew was the norm. It caused absolute confusion for me when I grew up being told I was a Jew and yet never setting foot in any religious institution.

I didn’t know what it meant to be a Jew, but I knew I wanted more than just a label. When I was 12, I was placed in foster care and never had the opportunity to further any Jewish identity. I was 15 when I made the decision to reconnect.

I was in the care of a very supportive Muslim family at the time. They took me to the local Sephardi Synagogue in Southern California, where the rabbi took the time to help me to connect to those customs and traditions.

By this point, I simply assumed that a Bar Mitzvah was out of the question, until I was given the opportunity at Beth Torah. I feel so full and happy now.

One thing that stuck out to me from all these Torah studies was that it’s never too late. God calls us all at different times. Moses lived 80 years before he made any contributions to Israel, and his contributions were perhaps the greatest. Though I wasn’t called as a young teenager, I was still called. For that I am eternally grateful.

LEA RENNERT
I did not grow up Jewish. But it seems that even before I converted in my early 20s, I was frequently “pegged” as Jewish by people around me, whether I knew them or not.

I was born in Vienna, Austria, the city that my paternal grandfather Erwin fled in 1938 with his sister to escape the Shoah. He was only 13, a few months after celebrating his own Bar Mitzvah, a hurried affair overshadowed by travel preparations for his journey into the unknown.
His sister was only 16. Their parents were unable to get the required visas, so they sent their children by themselves to cross Europe by train and then the Atlantic by ocean trawler, to be taken in by distant relatives in Brooklyn. I am named for my paternal grandfather’s mother Lea, who, along with her husband Pinkas and many other relatives, was murdered by the Nazis.

My grandfather, my “Opa,” was an important person in my life, and his story was always very close to me. As a child, I wished I had been born Jewish, not the least because I yearned for a community that would understand and share some of the emotions of growing up in a family that was so inescapably impacted by my grandfather’s trauma.

From the time I started to look into Judaism seriously as an adult, I was always particularly drawn to the books that were written by Conservative Jews or rabbis. However, until we moved to Dallas last summer, I had never lived in a city that even had a Conservative synagogue or community.

So I was very happy to find Beth Torah. Since we joined, my husband and I and our three children have felt very much at home. It seems fitting that this would be the community where I took my own Jewish journey to the next level by preparing for my adult Bat Mitzvah, learning how to chant Torah and becoming a more active member of the congregation.

I am also happy that when our children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I will be able to support them on a different level, as it is something I have now learned and experienced as well.
I don’t think that without taking this class, I would have ever found the courage to read Torah or participate as a service leader. But now I am sure I will do it again, and it won’t be as daunting.

DEBRA LAWSON
This is the second or third Bat Mitzvah for me. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Houston. In my Dad’s work, we never knew if we would be moving, so my family had not planned for my Bat Mitzvah.

When we asked our synagogue if they would Bat Mitzvah me, they said I’d have to be in their program for one year. The only synagogue that would give me a Bat Mitzvah on short notice was the regular Orthodox synagogue.

I only gave a D’var Torah at a luncheon after shul. Since the synagogue didn’t want us driving on Shabbat, we had the service and luncheon on Thanksgiving morning. Not only was I not allowed on the bimah, I wasn’t even able to see the bimah through the tall, opaque mechitza.

My “second” Bat Mitzvah was at my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. We finally stopped moving in 1993 and had a house built in Plano. We joined a “Traditional” synagogue, which meant my father could attend Orthodox services but still sit with his family.

But when my sister came of age for her Bat Mitzvah, she said, “I’m going to read from the Torah!” So my family moved to Beth Torah, where we were welcomed with a Shabbat Dinner. When they were doling out Torah readings, my sister insisted that I read from the Torah, so I was assigned the Second Aliyah.

My family and I continued at Beth Torah until I went off to college. When I came back, we initially went to another synagogue, but I decided to go with my mother to Beth Torah for the High Holidays in 2018.

I was very impressed with Rabbi Zelony, the first female head rabbi Dallas had ever had. I liked her because she was a role model for Jewish women, because of her speeches, and because of her singing voice.

The High Holiday booklet showed a lot of Adult Education classes. I joined Beri Schwitzer’s Nosh and Knowledge class and realized that an Adult Bnai Mitzvah class was starting at about the same time. I said to myself, “If not now, when?” During the eight months of the class, we learned to walk through the siddur, and we learned the Torah service and our Torah readings.

I had planned to use a synagogue tallit on the day of the B’nai Mitzvah, but the day before a package showed up at my door. My sister, who was coming in the next day, had surprised me. It was a purple tallit with my Hebrew name engraved.

CELIA ESCABI
Growing up, we did not practice Judaism or even observe Jewish holidays. After my great-grandfather survived the Holocaust and moved to the United States, he and my great-grandmother felt the best route to take was to assimilate and to “be American.” We didn’t talk about our Jewish roots and culture, but I always felt the pull to learn more about Judaism and I knew I was missing something.

As a young adult, I decided to pursue that call and visited a few local synagogues in Tampa, where I lived at the time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t welcomed with open arms. While some scowled at my “last name not being Jewish,” others told me I wasn’t really Jewish since I wasn’t raised Jewish. I felt like an outsider.

I moved to the Dallas area in August 2017 and planned to start fresh. I moved on a Monday and by Tuesday I was searching online, where I found Congregation Beth Torah.

Immediately I felt like this might be my Jewish family and a community. CBT seemed so open to converts and intermarriages, which was particularly important to me as my husband is not Jewish. I decided to leave a message on their website.

Within an hour I received a phone call. I gave a brief explanation of my Jewish background and how some didn’t feel that I was actually Jewish. The response stuck with me to this day: “That’s ridiculous. Your ancestors stood on Mount Sinai along with everyone else’s ancestors.”

The open acceptance and immediate unconditional love and affirmation filled me with tears and joy, and I will be forever grateful.

I attended CBT that Shabbat, and again was overwhelmed with the love and kindness the community showed to me. I felt like a celebrity as so many people went out of their way to welcome me and make me feel at home. I knew that I found my Jewish family and a supportive community, as I truly needed both.

Since being a member at CBT, I have soaked up as much knowledge about Judaism and my culture as possible. I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Adult B’nai Mitzvah class and hope to continue reading from the Torah. A month after becoming a Bat Mitzvah, I went to Israel on my Birthright trip. While my heart is so full at how far I have come in my Jewish journey, I truly wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for my family at CBT.

Here are their stories:
EMILY LEITNICK
Growing up, I was torn between several beliefs. My mother is Buddhist, while my father is Jewish. My friends at school were Christian. I knew from the age of 12 that I was not going to practice Buddhism, and when my father asked me to deepen my Jewish learning at 12, I felt unready to commit to a such an important life decision. By the time I was a senior in high school, I considered myself agnostic at best.

Then, early in my freshman year of college, I went through a personal crisis that affected me deeply. I was in a dark place. I slowly gave up God, but this ultimately led to a deeper depression.

Over time, I explored a variety of churches, temples, and other places of worship, but Judaism always stuck. As I continued getting older, I caught myself humming songs sung during Shabbat services and remembering prayers I learned as a young child.

It took me awhile to fully realize what my soul was trying to tell me. I finished college, started working and told myself I was too busy to explore my spirituality. Nevertheless, when the prayers of my past got too strong to ignore, I gradually began gathering courage to attend shul.

Though I was a bit overwhelmed at first (I attended alone), it still felt like I was coming home. The more I went, the less I felt something was missing. The strong feelings of community and belonging cemented my decision to choose Judaism, and I decided to continue with the full conversion process and have an adult Bat Mitzvah.

To say this process has been easy would be a lie. Truthfully, most of it was nerve-wracking. I nearly quit the B’nai Mitzvah class several times due to stress from work, personal life and my graduate student classes. However, upon completing this class, I realize it has been instrumental in the advancement of my spiritual life. Not only do I feel my journey has come full circle, but taking the class reaffirmed my choice in choosing Judaism and gave me a sense of accomplishment in my spiritual learning.

Through the overwhelming emotions came friendship and camaraderie with my peers and a sense of spiritual fulfillment. I am beyond overjoyed to have walked on the bimah, to have sung my Torah portion, and to ultimately come home to myself after all these years.

ELIZABETH RIDL
I grew up in a mostly nonreligious household, but something about Judaism has always spoken to me. As I got older I decided I would learn more about Judaism, so I began attending a Reform synagogue whenever I could. One of the factors in deciding what college I would go to was whether or not there was a strong Jewish presence there.

I ended up at UNT, where I became very involved in Hillel and made many friends that I am still very close to today. Through these friends I ended up at Beth Torah. I came to services when I could for several years, but did not have the time to devote to converting.

Beginning in August of 2017 I decided I would take the plunge and begin my conversion process. The class I took to convert was such a rewarding experience I decided I would take the B’nai Mitzvah class that Beth Torah was offering the next year. This class was equally rewarding. Several people from my conversion class were also in this class with me. I also met several people in the B’nai Mitzvah class that I am so thankful to have met, and will continue to be close with after the class.

Ever since I started going to CBT I have found everyone I encounter to be extremely welcoming. So many people have helped me with my Jewish journey. From helping me improve my ability to read Hebrew, to helping me figure out where we are in services, and especially helping me feel safe to ask the questions that I feel like I should know already but have forgotten. I truly feel at home at CBT. There is no other place like it.

MATTHEW MORRIS
My journey to Judaism actually started in Christianity, the religion and lifestyle I was raised in. It’s difficult to determine where the exact beginning of my journey was, but I’d have to say that it started with my questioning of the Christian church. The part of Christianity that most puzzled me was the fact that Christians tend to follow the apostle Paul’s instructions more than Jesus’s teachings.

This became even further highlighted to me when I started trying to evangelize my future wife. Since we are both scientists, I was determined to use facts rather than religious arguments to convince her of the trueness of Christianity. I figured it was also helpful that many of the things that Jesus preached were similar to concepts in Judaism. Most of the differences between the two religions were from commandments or revelations after Jesus died.

Of course, the largest difference was the issue of the messiah. I wanted to start at the fundamentals, so I was first going to find evidence of Jesus having been alive and performing miracles. That didn’t work since I couldn’t find proof outside of the Christian documents, and it is possible that documents have not survived through time. I ended up talking with a rabbi. I suspect I was wondering about Judaism more, since I was questioning Christianity.

All the evidence that he showed proved that the Christian understanding of many core beliefs were either incorrect or simply misunderstood.

So from that point, I had pretty much decided that I was going to convert. I had always believed in God, and I had felt like Judaism was the origin of Christianity, so it made perfect sense to go to Judaism once Christianity stopped making sense. The last deciding factor for choosing Judaism was that the meeting at Mt. Sinai was a group-witnessed event, so it was the scientifically most reliable.

Adding all that together, I came to the conclusion that Judaism made the most sense. And as I continued in my conversion class, everything made more and more sense, which solidified my decision. I continue to learn more about the Torah and Hebrew and Jewish traditions. I even decided to learn as much of the foundation of Judaism as I could, so I joined the B’nai Mitzvah class. My Jewish journey continues to be a learning and growing process, and always will be.

MYK DIAZ
Having a Bar Mitzvah as an adult sounded like such a strange thing to me, but at the same time it intrigued me. I felt as though something was missing, but I had simply accepted this as something that was gone and passed. As a relatively new member of Beth Torah, I found out about the Adult B’nai Mitzvah program. With much hesitation and fear, I ultimately decided to sign up.

My great-grandparents came to America in 1939 from Spain. They lived in a Sephardic community that was relatively new, having recently returned after Spanish exile. The fear of war forced them to make the difficult decision to move to the U.S – more specifically New Mexico – believing that there would be less of a language barrier there for them.

Life for them was difficult, bringing five children with them and no money. Unfortunately, this struggle continued for my grandmother, who grew up feeling as though she didn’t belong. My mother grew up with a very confused identity. Practicing Judaism at home, but with absolute resentment, and going to church during the week to hide being a Jew was the norm. It caused absolute confusion for me when I grew up being told I was a Jew and yet never setting foot in any religious institution.

I didn’t know what it meant to be a Jew, but I knew I wanted more than just a label. When I was 12, I was placed in foster care and never had the opportunity to further any Jewish identity. I was 15 when I made the decision to reconnect.

I was in the care of a very supportive Muslim family at the time. They took me to the local Sephardi Synagogue in Southern California, where the rabbi took the time to help me to connect to those customs and traditions.

By this point, I simply assumed that a Bar Mitzvah was out of the question, until I was given the opportunity at Beth Torah. I feel so full and happy now.

One thing that stuck out to me from all these Torah studies was that it’s never too late. God calls us all at different times. Moses lived 80 years before he made any contributions to Israel, and his contributions were perhaps the greatest. Though I wasn’t called as a young teenager, I was still called. For that I am eternally grateful.

LEA RENNERT
I did not grow up Jewish. But it seems that even before I converted in my early 20s, I was frequently “pegged” as Jewish by people around me, whether I knew them or not.

I was born in Vienna, Austria, the city that my paternal grandfather Erwin fled in 1938 with his sister to escape the Shoah. He was only 13, a few months after celebrating his own Bar Mitzvah, a hurried affair overshadowed by travel preparations for his journey into the unknown.

His sister was only 16. Their parents were unable to get the required visas, so they sent their children by themselves to cross Europe by train and then the Atlantic by ocean trawler, to be taken in by distant relatives in Brooklyn. I am named for my paternal grandfather’s mother Lea, who, along with her husband Pinkas and many other relatives, was murdered by the Nazis.

My grandfather, my “Opa,” was an important person in my life, and his story was always very close to me. As a child, I wished I had been born Jewish, not the least because I yearned for a community that would understand and share some of the emotions of growing up in a family that was so inescapably impacted by my grandfather’s trauma.

From the time I started to look into Judaism seriously as an adult, I was always particularly drawn to the books that were written by Conservative Jews or rabbis. However, until we moved to Dallas last summer, I had never lived in a city that even had a Conservative synagogue or community.

So I was very happy to find Beth Torah. Since we joined, my husband and I and our three children have felt very much at home. It seems fitting that this would be the community where I took my own Jewish journey to the next level by preparing for my adult Bat Mitzvah, learning how to chant Torah and becoming a more active member of the congregation.

I am also happy that when our children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, I will be able to support them on a different level, as it is something I have now learned and experienced as well.

I don’t think that without taking this class, I would have ever found the courage to read Torah or participate as a service leader. But now I am sure I will do it again, and it won’t be as daunting.

DEBRA LAWSON
This is the second or third Bat Mitzvah for me. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Houston. In my Dad’s work, we never knew if we would be moving, so my family had not planned for my Bat Mitzvah.

When we asked our synagogue if they would Bat Mitzvah me, they said I’d have to be in their program for one year. The only synagogue that would give me a Bat Mitzvah on short notice was the regular Orthodox synagogue.

I only gave a D’var Torah at a luncheon after shul. Since the synagogue didn’t want us driving on Shabbat, we had the service and luncheon on Thanksgiving morning. Not only was I not allowed on the bimah, I wasn’t even able to see the bimah through the tall, opaque mechitza.

My “second” Bat Mitzvah was at my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. We finally stopped moving in 1993 and had a house built in Plano. We joined a “Traditional” synagogue, which meant my father could attend Orthodox services but still sit with his family.

But when my sister came of age for her Bat Mitzvah, she said, “I’m going to read from the Torah!”

So my family moved to Beth Torah, where we were welcomed with a Shabbat Dinner. When they were doling out Torah readings, my sister insisted that I read from the Torah, so I was assigned the Second Aliyah.

My family and I continued at Beth Torah until I went off to college. When I came back, we initially went to another synagogue, but I decided to go with my mother to Beth Torah for the High Holidays in 2018.

I was very impressed with Rabbi Zelony, the first female head rabbi Dallas had ever had. I liked her because she was a role model for Jewish women, because of her speeches, and because of her singing voice.

The High Holiday booklet showed a lot of Adult Education classes. I joined Beri Schwitzer’s Nosh and Knowledge class and realized that an Adult Bnai Mitzvah class was starting at about the same time. I said to myself, “If not now, when?”

During the eight months of the class, we learned to walk through the siddur, and we learned the Torah service and our Torah readings.
I had planned to use a synagogue tallit on the day of the B’nai Mitzvah, but the day before a package showed up at my door. My sister, who was coming in the next day, had surprised me. It was a purple tallit with my Hebrew name engraved.

CELIA ESCABI
Growing up, we did not practice Judaism or even observe Jewish holidays. After my great-grandfather survived the Holocaust and moved to the United States, he and my great-grandmother felt the best route to take was to assimilate and to “be American.” We didn’t talk about our Jewish roots and culture, but I always felt the pull to learn more about Judaism and I knew I was missing something.

As a young adult, I decided to pursue that call and visited a few local synagogues in Tampa, where I lived at the time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t welcomed with open arms. While some scowled at my “last name not being Jewish,” others told me I wasn’t really Jewish since I wasn’t raised Jewish. I felt like an outsider.

I moved to the Dallas area in August 2017 and planned to start fresh. I moved on a Monday and by Tuesday I was searching online, where I found Congregation Beth Torah.

Immediately I felt like this might be my Jewish family and a community. CBT seemed so open to converts and intermarriages, which was particularly important to me as my husband is not Jewish. I decided to leave a message on their website.

Within an hour I received a phone call. I gave a brief explanation of my Jewish background and how some didn’t feel that I was actually Jewish. The response stuck with me to this day: “That’s ridiculous. Your ancestors stood on Mount Sinai along with everyone else’s ancestors.”

The open acceptance and immediate unconditional love and affirmation filled me with tears and joy, and I will be forever grateful.

I attended CBT that Shabbat, and again was overwhelmed with the love and kindness the community showed to me. I felt like a celebrity as so many people went out of their way to welcome me and make me feel at home. I knew that I found my Jewish family and a supportive community, as I truly needed both.

Since being a member at CBT, I have soaked up as much knowledge about Judaism and my culture as possible. I was grateful for the opportunity to participate in the Adult B’nai Mitzvah class and hope to continue reading from the Torah. A month after becoming a Bat Mitzvah, I went to Israel on my Birthright trip. While my heart is so full at how far I have come in my Jewish journey, I truly wouldn’t have been able to do it if it wasn’t for my family at CBT.