There are not many Jews in Warren, Pennsylvania, probably fewer than 10.
Located along the Allegheny River, 20 miles south of Jamestown, New York, the town of about 10,000 people no longer has a synagogue, a rabbi or a Torah, and it hasn’t for years. There is no Hebrew school, no day school, no Jewish camp.
But none of that could stop Eliza Brook from preparing for and celebrating her bat mitzvah.
Although the Warren Hebrew Congregation — founded in 1906 to serve a small, turn-of-the-century Jewish community — maintained a stable but modest membership for decades, it closed in 1993 as families moved and children of congregants chose to live elsewhere.
The closest Jewish community to Warren is Jamestown, which sold its synagogue building two years ago after dwindling to 11 families. Jews in Jamestown now congregate in space provided by a Lutheran church. The handful of Jews who remain in Warren sometimes head to Jamestown for the High Holidays or on an occasional Shabbat, or to Chautauqua, which is 30 miles away, but otherwise forgo Jewish communal life.
So, when then 11-year-old Eliza told her father, David Brook, that she wanted to have a bat mitzvah, the announcement took him by surprise. Eliza did not know how to read Hebrew, and had no formal Jewish education.
Brook and his wife, Verlynn Kleppe, who is not Jewish, have not raised Eliza and her older sister in any particular faith, instead introducing them to traditions of both Judaism and Christianity.
“We have not tried to label the children either way,” Brook said. “We have not created a bias one way or another.”
He is not certain why Eliza decided to have a bat mitzvah, but he does have a theory.
“We had just gotten back from a cousin’s bat mitzvah in Connecticut,” Brook said, adding that he didn’t know “if it was the idea of the bat mitzvah, or the idea of the party” that was motivating his daughter.
“I thought it was cool,” said Eliza. “I wanted to learn the language. I thought it was interesting, and my cousin had done it.”
Regardless of the motivation, if Eliza was serious, Brook wanted to make it work. And he wanted Eliza to take the lead.
Her first step was to find a tutor and learn how to read Hebrew. Fortunately, a gentleman in Warren, Harvey Stone, 77, was up to the task. Eliza called Stone herself and asked him to help.
“I was surprised when Eliza reached out,” said Stone, an engineer who spends winters in Florida. “I knew they were not bringing up their children as Jews, and that Eliza had no background. But I never turn anybody down.”
Stone, who had a “traditional” Jewish upbringing, had taught his own brother his Haftorah, and had tutored several other children for their b’nai mitzvahs in Warren, including some of his own children.
“I told Eliza how hard it would be,” Stone said. “She had no background in the language or the music to relate to. It was starting from scratch.”
The two met weekly for lessons at Stone’s office, and when Stone was in Florida, they met over the phone.
“It was funny because he would sit outside and the people in his community in Florida would listen to me practice,” Eliza said. “I had my own fan club.”
Stone found some online courses to help Eliza learn to read Hebrew. He taught her the blessings before and after the Haftorah, as well as her Haftorah. He also taught her some liturgical songs, such as “Adon Olam” and “Ein Kelohanu.”
“She’s an excellent student,” Stone said. “And she’s a competitive swimmer, a soccer player and she rides horses. I don’t know how she fit it in.”
Knowing that the majority of attendees at Eliza’s June 22 bat mitzvah would not be Jewish, Stone created a 34-page packet to be used in lieu of a siddur.
“I put together a service that I thought would fit with the people who were there,” Stone said.
Although Eliza’s initial guest list was long, as the big day approached, she had whittled it down to just 20 people, close friends and family. Still, her dad had to find a venue in a town that is not accustomed to hosting bat mitzvah services and parties.
He found it at the Conewango Club, an exclusive, old-school club established in 1896 for Warren’s businessmen; the club did not even admit women until fairly recently.
The Brooks also needed to borrow a Torah. The Jewish community in Jamestown, where Brook was raised and where his parents still live, was happy to help.
Brook’s mother, Brenda, was charged with picking the Torah up from the locked closet where it is kept at Bethel Lutheran Church, and brought it down to Warren for the big event. Brenda also brought along challah she purchased from the Wegman’s in Jamestown, and some wine for kiddish.
The service, kiddish and party all went smoothly, and Brenda is proud of her granddaughter’s accomplishments.
“It was a personal goal that she set for herself, and she achieved it,” Brenda said. “It was very personal, and very rewarding.”
Stone remains impressed by Eliza’s initiative and tenacity.
“She was motivated to take this on, starting from scratch and learning Hebrew,” he said. “I enjoyed working with her, and I think she did a wonderful job.”
Brook is still amazed that everything came together so seamlessly.
“I didn’t think much about it until I was in the service and looked at all the moving parts,” he said. “My mom getting the Torah and driving it to Warren, Shallin [Eliza’s godmother and the event’s photographer] flying in from Oklahoma. My sister coming in from Rochester, New York, and my mom’s sister and brother-in-law coming in from Connecticut. And I never had to push Eliza or encourage her to study. She did it all on her own.”
Now that Eliza has had a hearty taste of Judaism, she is interested in learning more.
“I think I will still want to celebrate Christmas, and do both,” she said. “But now that I know the Hebrew, I want to go more [to services] and learn more about the community.
“I feel accomplished,” she said. “I guess it was kind of a big deal.” JN