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A Faith Flows Across Time

Religion: In Aliso Viejo, a family's three generations join in an unusual form of the Jewish rite of passage.

September 01, 2002|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In front of a teary-eyed congregation, Chaim Pollak, a survivor of Nazi concentration and labor camps, passed the Torah to his daughter, Celia. The sacred scrolls containing Hebrew Scripture had been pieced together from four Torahs burned by German forces during World War II.

Celia then handed the Torah to her eldest daughter, Estee. And Estee's three sisters each took a turn holding it, a symbolic act to show the Jewish faith being passed from generation to generation.

"It was very emotional," said Chaim Pollak, 73. "We tried very hard to give them faith. We did our best."

In a twist on the usual Bar (for a boy) or Bat (for a girl) Mitzvah ceremony, Celia, 47, and her four children together became B'not Mitzvah ("Daughters of the Commandment") after helping lead the Saturday morning Shabbat service at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo. Normally, one or two adolescents at a time go through the ceremony, a rite of passage usually done about age 13.

It was the first time in Allen Krause's 35-year career as a rabbi that five family members went through the ceremony at the same time.

"You fill us with feelings of great hope for the Jewish people," he told them.

Celia Pollak, born in Israel and now living in Laguna Niguel, was raised in an Orthodox congregation, where Bat Mitzvah ceremonies were not held because women could not take lead roles in the synagogue.

Until last year, the single mother had never considered having her daughters become B'not Mitzvah (the plural of Bat Mitzvah), though her family had attended Temple Beth El, a Reform synagogue that encourages the ceremony, for a dozen years.

"I just didn't give it much thought," she said.

But then her third daughter, 14-year-old Rachel, announced that she wanted to go through the ceremony. Celia Pollak pointed out that if she held a Bat Mitzvah for one daughter, she should make the opportunity available to the others: Estee, 21; Sarah, 16; and Hannah, 13.

Her daughters liked the idea, but added another wrinkle that took the form of an ultimatum.

"We told her, 'You either do this with us too, or we're not doing it,' " Estee recalled.

Celia said she initially hoped her daughters' enthusiasm for her participation would fade.

"I kind of just ignored it, hoping it would go away," she said. "It's a lot of work, and it's scary. But the girls kept nudging me and bugging me."

Her rabbi also did his part the moment he heard the idea. "I jumped on it immediately," Krause said. "I didn't want Celia or her daughters to get away. I think the health of a synagogue is reflective on how well it passes tradition to the next generation. So this is very symbolic for us."

The five Pollak females divvied up parts of the Saturday service, taking turns reading, praying and chanting in Hebrew. Junior high, high school and college friends waved and gave thumbs-up signs each time one of them completed a difficult passage.

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