Liel Dokarker, center, with her father, Yonah Dokarker and stepmother, Pam Bondy.
Sunlight filtered through Temple Sholom's stained glass windows when Liel Dokarker gave her d'var Torah, chanted her Torah portion, became a proud bat mitzvah, and received the blessing of her family, friends and wider community. It was a gorgeous morning, just a few days after the summer solstice. But the radiance filling the room was beyond the visible spectrum; its brilliance emanated from a source other than the sun, and would have been present even had the room been dark. How else to describe a sacred experience?
All lifecycle celebrations, by definition, are sacred. The connection between family members, friends and community; the filial strands of faith and tradition; the assignation of meaning to ritual—all of these elements are present, even if a child's voice is scratchy, or she lacks conceptual insight and the rhetorical power to convey it.
Liel is the daughter of my colleague and friend, Yonah, but her story is more complex than that. In fact the sacred force so present in the sanctuary in Liel's presence—the force of shleimut in Hebrew, or wholeness—was in direct proportion to the complexity of her story. For what is wholeness, or completeness, unless understood in relationship to incompleteness?
Liel's story is a powerful lesson in transformation from brokenness to wholeness, from incompleteness to completeness.
The road from Ahmedabad, India, where Yonah was born, to Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, where Liel became a bat mitzvah, is a winding road. For Yonah that road wound through Kiryat Gat, Israel, the town where Yonah grew up and worked as a teacher after his family made aliyah from India when he was a child. And it wound through Lebanon, where, as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, Yonah learned harsh lessons of life. Yonah's road also wound through Bergen, Norway, a place where, as a young traveler, he learned the life lesson that resulted in the birth of Liel to a Norwegian woman.
Yonah carried Liel in his heart and always worked to make her a part of his life despite the obstacles of distance and other challenges. A social worker involved with Liel in Norway felt that Yonah would be able to provide a more stable environment to raise the child, and Yonah dreamed of the day when he could bring Liel to live with him.
And then along came Pam Bondy from Chicago. Pam and Yonah met while she was participating on a JUF mission to Kiryat Gat, in JUF's Partnership Together region. The match was beshert; (destined); Yonah moved to Chicago; the couple married. Now Liel not only was Yonah's concern, but also Pam's.
Fast forward to 2009. After an arduous legal process, a Norwegian court—with the cooperation of a loving foster family who had cared for Liel—granted custody to Yonah and Pam, and they brought Liel to Chicago to begin her life anew. Begin it anew she did. She adapted to a new, stable home, in a new country, with a new language. She made friends, distinguished herself in school. She determined, on her own, to become a Jew. She gathered the strands of her identity—Norwegian, Indian, Israeli.
That alone might be her story were it not for one other factor—Liel is exceptional. She is not the child with the scratchy voice. She is not a child lacking conceptual insight or the rhetorical power to convey it. She is the opposite. She expressed herself so eloquently in (unaccented!) English about how she had come to America, to her new family, and to Judaism, like a fish out of water, and had become a guppy in a vast ocean of love, connection, and identity. Few eyes were dry when she finished her speech. And as for her chanting? It was as though an angel had descended to the bimah, and through Liel's voice had lifted the tall ceiling of Temple Sholom to the heavens.
So many people turn skeptical when they hear the word sacred; after all, what does it mean? I grapple with that question often, and often find myself skeptical and confused. At Liel's bat mitzvah, there was no doubt; all who gathered were witness to something sacred. I struggle to put that feeling into words, to describe what was so deep, so revealed, and yet so hidden-a fleeting glimpse at a force way beyond us, deep within us, which often eludes us, and, as on that day, drives us to tears of joy. May all who experience brokenness find shleimut; may all who doubt the sacred someday feel it. May Liel, may all of Israel's children, find peace.