A daughter lost in infancy inspired a morning of celebration and learning on what would have been her bat mitzva.
Batsheva Kanelsky, who died as an infant in 2003, was the ninth and youngest child of Rabbi Mordechai Kanelsky and his wife, Shterney, who lead the Chabad-affiliated Bris Avrohom outreach center in Hillside.
The Kanelskys marked their daughter’s 12th yahrtzeit on March 1 with a brunch encouraging Jewish women to “reignite the spark within” by observing mitzvot, or Jewish commandments.
Over 100 women gathered for the ceremony and a talk by Sarah Karmely, an author and educator who writes about relationships, love, and marriage from an observant Jewish perspective.
“Instead of caving in to our grief, we decided to make a change in the world so that Batsheva’s life and our buckets of tears wouldn’t be in vain,” said Shterney Kanelsky, who described the Mitzva Campaign she and her family launched after Batsheva’s birth and illness.
The campaign encouraged community members — many from Bris Avrohom’s target population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union — to pray for their daughter’s recovery and undertake one new mitzva.
“The campaign succeeded in inspiring hundreds of men to purchase new tefillin in her honor or study the Torah for an additional 10-15 minutes each day,” said Shterney. In addition, the campaign inspired over 500 women to light Shabbat candles, hundreds of children to begin ritually washing their hands upon rising, and individuals to affix over 700 mezuzas to their doorposts, she said.
“It also inspired nearly 100 women to use the mikva for the very first time,” she added. Observant women use the mikva, or ritual bath, on a monthly basis as part of “family purity” rituals.
The practice holds special meaning for the Kanelskys.
In her native Kazakhstan, “Batsheva’s grandmother, Rebbetzin Chaya Esther Zaltzman, traveled 36 hours by train each way at the cost of half a week of her husband’s salary to visit the mikva each month, and often had to chop through ice with an axe to walk there,” said Rabbi Kanelsky. “It was a sacrifice and a struggle.”
In honor of their daughter and Rebbetzin Zaltzman, the Kanelskys constructed the Bat Sheva Chaya Esther Mikvah in Hillside in 2006. The two-story facility includes jacuzzis, heated floors, and other amenities “so that women could observe the mitzva of mikva with comfort and enjoyment,” Shterney said.
She sang a song written for her daughter, which included the lines “Batsheva, your days so few, yet what lifetimes cannot do/ See, my child, all the souls that you ignite.”
“Through the strength of her pure soul, Batsheva was a symbol of hope and achieved so much,” said Shterney.
“It’s very nice to gather these women to recognize Batsheva’s bat mitzva,” said attendee and Livingston resident Zhanna Libson, 44. She belongs to Congregation Shomrei Torah with her husband, both of whom have known the Kanelskys since arriving in the United States from Russia in the 1980s. “The event reinforced the importance of being together and being part of something bigger, and we look forward to meeting in better times.”
Established by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in 1979, Bris Avrohom has locations in Hillside, Jersey City, Fair Lawn, and Brooklyn and is connected to over 7,500 Russian-Jewish and other families throughout the United States and Canada.
To contribute to the Bat Sheva Mitzva Campaign, call 908-289-0770 or visit brisavrohom.org.