Madison Mehlman has been mad about dancing almost since she could walk, so — as the 12-year-old from Springfield said in a letter to friends and family — it only made sense that she would do something dance-related for her bat mitzva project. The question was how to give it a Jewish context.
The answer came from her mother, Jessica, who is assistant director for resource development with the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. Through her job, Jessica has been to Israel four times, often visiting Arad, the Negev town that is twinned with the Central community through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 project. She suggested to her daughter that she focus her mitzva project on Arad Sings and Dances, a company based at Arad’s matnas, or community center, which the federation supports.
Madison took her mother’s suggestion and, as a result, on July 13 she had a double thrill — she presented a gift of new and gently used ballet clothing and $750 she had collected to the director of Arad Sings and Dances, and she got a chance to dance with some of the company’s students.
In an e-mail reply to a question from NJ Jewish News a few days after returning from the trip, she wrote, “Dance is my life. When I am an adult I want to own my own dance studio so I can teach other people to love dance as much as I do. Being able to dance in Israel was really fun.”
The visit to Israel was Madison’s first. She went with her parents and her younger sister, her grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and two cousins. One of those cousins, Evan Weis, is just a few months older than Madison, and earlier on that same Thursday, the two of them had another unforgettable experience: a b’nei mitzva ceremony, led by a Masorti rabbi, atop Masada.
Evan also had a bar mitzva celebration in February in Chicago, where his family lives; Madison will have another bat mitzva service in December, at the Summit Jewish Community Center, but the trip and the ceremony in Israel was the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream for the whole family.
“This is something my sister and I had been planning for years, ever since the children were born,” Mehlman said. Evan and Madison practiced with the rabbi via Skype, and on July 13, it all went smoothly. They had climbed up the mountain at dawn, and — shaded from the already intense heat in a room between the citadel walls — the family prayed together.
Madison’s mother had a hand in planning the event. “We wanted it to be a real ceremony, with Torah, not just reading poetry,” Mehlman said. She was deeply moved by the experience of participating in the service with her daughter and nephew. “I’ve read Torah many times in shul, but reading Torah on Masada, with the view over the valley below, was just awe-inspiring.”
‘One strong people’
The family went from Masada to Arad in time for lunch and the visit with the dance company. In the letter Madison wrote to family and friends asking for donations, she said, “Arad Sings and Dances brings traditional Israeli music, song, and dance to the people of Arad, giving children and teens who love music and dancing the chance to act out their dream. The program believes that dancing and singing will help all ages come together as a community to promote Israeli songs and dancing.”
She told NJJN that as the time for the visit to Arad approached, “I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried that it was going to be Israeli circle dancing, but it was just like dancing at my studio at home. I am really glad I got to help this dance program in Israel as part of my bat mitzva. And it makes the whole experience more special because I got to dance!”
In an e-mail to NJJN, Nili Avrahamy, director of the Arad-Tamar-NJ-Delaware Partnership 2000 project, praised Madison’s “amazing gesture.”
“Madison’s generous contribution to our dance troupe will enable them to purchase much-needed costumes, which are very expensive in Israel,” said Avrahamy, who helped arrange the visit. “Her donation will also help subsidize the troupe’s transportation to tournaments and help finance their performances. In addition, Madison brought us dance costumes, uniforms, and shoes, which will make our young dancers very happy!
“Madison’s amazing gesture has touched the lives of many of Arad’s children,” continued Avrahamy, who helped make arrangements for the visit “and in that way has brought Madison and her family into the lives of members of the Arad community. This is the true meaning of our partnership — bringing members of Jewish communities abroad together with communities in Israel to form a stronger bond with Israel, strengthening their Jewish identity and making us one strong people.
“We thank Madison from the bottom of our hearts, and we hope to see her and her family again in Arad in the future.”