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Rachel Kunstadt behind a microphone and a music stand and in front of a brick wall

My Re-Bat Mitzvah: by Rachel Kunstadt

This week’s Shabbat Smile is by Rachel Kunstadt, a mental health advocate and self-advocate in NYC. Her presentation at our Empowerment Training for Jewish Women with Disabilities – entitled “Choosing Life!” – included a musical performance of a song she co-wrote, addressing her agoraphobia.

This past January, I became a Bat Mitzvah for the second time. Or maybe for the first time, depending on how you look at it.

Like every other 13-year-old at my conservative synagogue in Westchester County did that year, on January 11, 2003, I became a Bat Mitzvah. I chanted Torah and Haftorah and delivered a D’Var Torah, while my parents spent thousands of dollars on a party to keep up with the Steins.

I’m told it was a beautiful service, but I was so overcome with anxiety that it’s almost completely lost to me. I definitely don’t remember the party – because I didn’t go. I managed to stay about an hour before I had a massive panic attack.

I spent the majority of that Saturday night in the Youth Lounge of my synagogue while my friends and family dined and danced, wondering where I had vanished to and why I wasn’t at my own party.

As I understood it, a Bat Mitzvah is a marker of transition into Jewish womanhood. When I was 13, I was lost, nowhere near that transition, spiritually or psychologically. I had nothing to celebrate. I was living in utter fear of having frequent, debilitating panic attacks, which was yet to have a name or diagnosis. I had “things” which were scary and inexplicable. It wasn’t until later that words like “derealization” would come into my vocabulary and I would be diagnosed with panic disorder.

At my Bat Mitzvah party, due to what I have since processed as an intense fear of becoming an autonomous, healthy adult, I had a panic attack. It wasn’t my first. It wasn’t my last. It wasn’t even my worst. It was, however, the first time a panic attack caused, or allowed (according to my psychoanalyst) me to retreat from life.

The Torah portion I prepared was Bo, which tells of the last three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first born. The internal plague of my panic nearly cost me my life, but like all Jewish stories, I survived. I survived a decade of panic attacks. I survived severe depression. I survived a six-month battle with agoraphobia, when I was completely housebound at age 16. I survived, and I chose life.

In the sixteen years since The Great Bat Mitzvah Panic Attack of 2003, I have done quite a bit of soul searching, psychologically and spiritually. I have found my place in New York City, living a dual life as a theatre producer/writer and a Jewish non-profit professional. I see a lot of theatre, have an active social life, and have learned I’m a great caretaker, being the mother of a small dog.

Looking back at that fateful evening and its aftermath (imagine having to explain to the seventh grade why you didn’t attend your own Bat Mitzvah party), I decided it was time for a re-do. I worked with a rabbi to create a Re-Bat Mitzvah; we designed a service and reception that would be significant to my ongoing growth and that would feel right to me.

The week before my Re-Bat Mitzvah, I immersed in the mikveh. As I submerged in the water, I thought about that scared thirteen-year-old whom I’ve held onto all these years. As I emerged from the water, I let her go.

On January 12, 2019, I became a Re-Bat Mitzvah. I held an evening service where I gave a D’var Torah, chanted Torah, and led Havdalah. Although my original Bat Mitzvah parsha, Bo, was chanted that morning, at my Re-Bat Mitzvah, I chanted my new parsha, Beshalach, in which the Jews were freed from Egypt and wandered through the desert. Beshalach literally means “after [s]he had let go.” Following Havdalah (another transition of time), there was a musical performance of a handful of showtunes that have meant a lot to me throughout my life, plus a song I wrote the lyrics for from my in-the-works autobiographical musical about my experience with agoraphobia. It was a revelatory experience filled with symbolism of letting go, moving on, and choosing life.

I dined, danced, and celebrated. At my Re-Bat Mitzvah, with my friends and with G-d, I let go of that sick, little girl. I embraced being a Jewish woman. I was present, alive and well. L’Chaim!

In our Jewish Disability Perspectives newsletter, RespectAbility welcomes a wide spectrum of voices. The views expressed in each Jewish Disability Perspectives contribution are those of the guest contributor.

Meet the Author

Debbie Fink

Debbie Fink was the Director of Community Outreach & Impact for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities.

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