Family & Education

A very special batmitzvah gift

Anya Blakeney's parents wanted to make her batmitzvah meaningful. Her mother, Claire, describes how a trip to Israel proved inspirational.


I am not a journalist, but a mother to a girl who celebrated her batmitzvah last month. I wanted to make that experience meaningful for her and for our family, and to take on the challenge of doing something significant in the knowledge that this was one opportunity where she alone could make a difference.

Anya has often worried about the homeless, so this was a starting point to explore some charities. We found Crossroads, a gem of an organisation, through Myisrael, and did our research. After a few emails backwards and forwards we arranged to visit Crossroads which is located in Jerusalem, near Ben Yehuda Street. We were both blown away by what we saw. Crossroads helps hundreds of at-risk and homeless teens in Jerusalem. It is the only charity that specifically supports English-speaking teens.

We were met by a social worker who kindly showed us around and spoke to us all about the needs of the children who use their services. We saw a walk-in cupboard full of different-size clothes so the teens could change… something my children certainly take for granted! We saw a library where they could chose a book to escape into and watched art therapy sessions taking place. The teenagers had access to social workers for support and could also use a number of computers to search for jobs or complete online courses in order to better their life chances. It felt like a positive and inspiring place and we committed to raising some much-needed funds 
to help.

The next decision was how we were going to help. What was Anya going to do? She had toyed with the idea of cutting her precious long hair and donating it; however, she felt too worried and scared to commit to what she felt was something quite drastic. We were four months away from her batmitzvah and needed to start making decisions.

Then something happened that will stay with me forever. On a trip to Israel in October 2016 I had arranged a tour guide to show three generations of our family around Yad Vashem. Our guide, a wonderful, warm South African woman, knew Anya’s batmitzvah was soon approaching. In one of the rooms she called Anya over to a glass display cabinet. Inside was, among some artefacts, a photograph of a 12-year-old girl called Lili Hirsch, her older brother, and her parents. Anya immediately likened herself to Lili, having an older brother herself.



The guide told Anya Lili’s story. Before the war Lili and her family lived in Transylvania. When the decree was issued ordering all the Jews to leave their homes and relocate to the ghetto Lili’s mother, Rivka, wanted to cut off Lili’s long hair. Rivka knew the conditions in the ghetto would make hair care impossible, however Lili refused to part with her long plaits. Her mother promised that her precious plaits would be stored in her father’s tallit bag and kept with a trusted neighbour. On those conditions Lili agreed.

After six weeks in the ghetto the family were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Rivka and Lili were sent to the gas chambers. Lili’s father and brother survived and, in September 1945, they returned to their home. All that remained of their family’s belongings were Lili’s plaits stored in her father’s tallit bag and left with their neighbours. Father and son took the braids with them as a lasting memory of Lili and their life before the war before both settling in Israel in 1962. In the glass cabinet at Yad Vashem, we saw Lili’s plaits in her father’s tallit bag.



Anya knew then that she had to honour Lili’s memory. She decided she was going to cut her hair. Lili did not have a choice and Anya did. Lili did not have a batmitzvah and Anya was about to celebrate hers. Lili did not have a future.

We celebrated Anya’s batmitzvah and during the beautiful shul service, Anya kept an empty chair for Lili. She told Lili’s story and honoured and remembered Lili on her special day. It was Anya’s day and it was Lili’s day too. The following week Anya cut her hair and we took it to Zichron Menachem who will use her hair to be made into a wig for a child with cancer. To date she has also raised almost £1,200 for Crossroads.



My message is twofold. Firstly, if you have a bar or batmitzvah coming up then try to think about a way to make it meaningful. Start with something that concerns or interests your child and take it from there. You never know where it may lead. It has added a dimension to our family simchah that would not have happened otherwise.

And finally, please remember a 12-year-old Jewish girl with beautiful long plaits called Lili. May her memory live on.

If you would like to donate to Anya's fundraising efforts, follow this link. 

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