Adar 16, 5769 / March 12, '09  
Rabbis Elharar and Tzachi, Singer family
Rabbis Elharar and Tzachi, Singer family
Israel News Photo: (courtesy of Dead Sea Chabad) 

Published: 03/10/09, 9:17 AM / Last Update: 03/10/09, 2:00 PM

A Special Bat Mitzvah at Masada for Rebecca

by Hana Levi Julian

( A diminutive, blonde child stepped across the stony threshold of the dusty chamber between the outer walls of Masada. She was not steady on her feet and was aided by her much larger, stronger Israeli cousin who smiled at the baker and said, "I guess we've arrived at the right place."

Rabbi Tzachi plays music to set the mood prior to the challah-baking workshop.

Rebecca Singer came with her parents and younger brother late last month to celebrate her passage into adulthood in a special program called The Masada Experience, designed to highlight a Jewish girl's emergence into adulthood.

The Bat Mitzvah ceremony is conducted by Chabad Rabbi Shimon Elharar and his assistant, Rabbi Tzachi, followed by a challah-baking workshop for the female family members by a professional baker dressed in ancient costume.

Rebecca, her grandmother and her mother are taught to make challah by the Ancient Baker.

The ceremony itself is conducted in the very synagogue where Jews once worshipped atop the cliff top fortress overlooking the ruins of the Roman camp below.

Rabbi Tzachi and Rabbi Shimon Elharar flank Rebecca and her grandparents, parents and younger brother in the newly-rebuilt synagogue atop Masada.

The desert fortress of King Herod, where some 900 Jews chose death over Roman slavery, today is a symbol of fierce Israeli independence, where IDF officers today vow "Never again" as they promise to protect the homeland. 

For Rebecca's family especially, independence is an issue very much on their minds.

Rebecca has a rare genetic disorder called Phelan McDermid Syndrome, a condition that was only recently named for the two scientists that pinned down its characteristics. The condition is marked by the deletion of chromosome 22q13.3.

"In Rebecca's case it has caused significant developmental delays and at age four she was diagnosed with autistic tendencies," Rebecca's father Jon explained, noting that she still does not speak and does not really have a high-level ability to communicate. "However, they are working on helping her make sounds in school and on using pictures to communicate."

Helping Rebecca learn to knead challah.

There are only a few hundred individuals diagnosed with Phelan McDermid in the entire world. (For more information about the condition, click here.)  

"Our decision about Masada was made last minute," Singer added. "Our rabbi was originally supposed to come on our trip but because he had so many other recent visits to Israel he could not make it. The UJA/UJC was trying to figure out something we could do in Israel, but they were limited by the fact that we had no rabbi accompanying us on our trip. They talked about saying a prayer when we arrived in Israel, but we wanted more, and something more meaningful. When I spoke to [Rabbi Elharar] and explained that whatever we did I needed to be together with my daughter and he said it wouldn't be an issue, it was an easy decision for us to make," he said.