For most Jewish girls, the 6th grade is the year when they prepare for and celebrate their bat mitzvah, or coming of age ceremony. The young ladies will often study traditional Jewish texts, participate in extensive volunteer or community service activities, and overall, start their commitment to living an active, thoughtful, Jewish lifestyle.
My daughter, along with her 77 other classmates began the year along the same trajectory, as they were all approaching the homestretch of their pre-bat mitzvah maturity. Over the course of the year, each would have their special day when ‘she’ would be the center of attention, the speeches would all be about her, and all of her friends would serenade her with song, dance, poems and even a few gifts.
As Jewish parents, we devote a lot of our parenting towards encouraging our children to be contributors to society rather than takers – to be givers. But my daughter has learned over the past few months that for every ‘giver’ there must be a ‘receiver’.
In some cases, the art of receiving can have an even bigger impact than the art of giving.
While returning home after her weekly math enrichment program at nearby Bar-Ilan University, our neighbor and my daughter’s classmate, 11 year old Ayala Shapira (and her father) were ambushed by Palestinian terrorists, which left Ayala with severe 3rd degree burns over 70% of her body. She has spent the last five months in and out of surgery (more than half a dozen skin grafts and more to come), persevering through arduous physical therapy sessions, recovering from Post-Traumatic Stress, and dealing with her new reality (listen to this report for more details on her recuperation). She has done so with courage and determination as demonstrated in this TV report.
When my daughter and I went to visit Ayala at the Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, it was emotional for many reasons. First, as a father of another soon-to-be 12 year old, viewing Ayala’s predicament demonstrated how precariously close the evils of terrorism had come to my family, whom just 5 years ago was living a peaceful and relatively uneventful life in Mercer Island, WA. Secondly, Ayala appeared to be progressing with unbelievable determination. Although her days consisted of 8-10 hours of grueling physical therapy, tremendous pain and discomfort, and the heart breaking psychological damage that comes from surviving a terrorist attack, Ayala still had one other obligation – to receive visitors (many of whom were complete strangers) with graciousness.
Aside from comforting her, we had come that evening to deliver a very thoughtful gift from a Bar Mitzvah boy in New Jersey who had never met Ayala. Ayala’s response was one that has changed my understanding of life’s challenges. This incredible 11 year old girl opened her gift from a complete stranger and saw dozens of letters written by his classmates to her. While she was touched by the gesture, her initial response was a bit surprising – “Oh great, another iPad and more letters for me.” Was it possible that she was not grateful for the kindness shown to her by the JEC School in New Jersey? Of course not. She later showed us countless letters and gifts from Jewish children from as far away as Australia. It was clear that she cherished every single one. But what I was viewing was an 11 year old girl teaching me the value of giving and receiving.
We teach our kids to give; to help others who can’t help themselves, be it the poor or the weak or the sick. Ayala’s response demonstrated that she did not see herself as weak or sick, and is frustrated that she is longer in a position to be a ‘giver’ as she was before the attack. She is understandably uncomfortable with her new role as the subject of others’ kindness and prayers. However, what she also demonstrated was that she has adjusted to her new role of ‘giving through receiving’. By welcoming my daughter and me into her recovery room that day, Ayala was once again playing the role of the giver. I know that we got a lot more out of the visit than Ayala did. She was exhausted. But she gracefully welcomed us, partially so that we could feel good about ‘comforting her’. But really she was comforting us.