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Reflecting on the B’nai Mitzvah Program 

Home Blog Reflecting on the B’nai Mitzvah Program 

Celebrating Growth and Community Through this Special Tradition

Every year, students participate in Jewish Life at Duke’s B’nai Mitzvah program, which offers students who did not become b’nai mitzvah as pre-teens to take part in this milestone during their time at Duke.  

This year, we celebrated the B’not Mitzvah of Duke seniors Julia Kagiliery, Lila Taylor, and Maggie Wolfe. These students represent the 13th year of the program, which has included 22 students since its inception in 2011. Julia, Lila, and Maggie studied with Duke’s Campus Rabbi and Jewish Chaplain Elana Friedman, some learning to read Hebrew for the first time. They explored their Torah portion and completed a mitzvah (service) project, all culminating in leading a Shabbat service at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, officially becoming B’nai Mitzvah. The Jewish Student Union, Duke’s undergraduate Jewish organization, then hosted a celebratory themed party for the whole Duke community, with activities and décor reminiscent of their teen celebrations. 

For many students, the decision to participate in the B’nai Mitzvah program is a deeply personal one. Some may have grown up in families where Jewish traditions were not emphasized, while others may have discovered their Jewish identity later in life. Regardless of their backgrounds, all participants share a common desire—to explore their Jewish heritage, connect with their roots, and mark this important milestone in a meaningful way. 

The journey begins with Rabbi Elana, who guides students first through learning Hebrew and to teachings of the Torah. But beyond the academic aspect, she also serves as a mentor and pastoral presence, offering support and encouragement every step of the way. 

As students progress through the program, they engage in a variety of activities designed to deepen their understanding of Judaism and foster a sense of community. Mitzvah projects play a central role in this process, allowing students to apply their knowledge and skills to make a positive impact in the world around them.  

The culmination of the B’nai Mitzvah program is the Shabbat prayer service itself, held at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life. Surrounded by friends, family, and members of the Duke community, students take center stage as they lead the Shabbat service and deliver a d’var torah, a reflection sharing their insights from their Torah portions. It’s a moment of pride and joy, not just for the students, but for everyone who has supported them along their journey. 

Lila Taylor, one of the b’nai mitzvah students, shared that “I always knew that I wanted to do the B’nai Mitzvah program from the moment that I learned about it my freshman year. I never had the opportunity to have a bat mitzvah as a teenager, so I was really excited to do it now, during a time where it is so important to show how proud we are of being Jewish.”  

As we look back on another year of the B’nai Mitzvah program at Duke, we are filled with gratitude for the students who have embarked on this journey and the peers, faculty, and staff who have supported them. Together, we have celebrated milestones, forged friendships, and strengthened the fabric of our community. And as we look to the future, we are excited to welcome new cohorts of students into this cherished program and continue to build a more inclusive and vibrant Jewish community at Duke and beyond. 

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About Jewish Life at Duke

Jewish Life at Duke (JLD) is the hub for all things Jewish on Duke’s campus. An accredited Hillel as well as a department within Duke University’s Division of Student Affairs, Jewish Life at Duke is guided by a mission to empower Jewish students to learn and grow intellectually and spiritually; to inspire and nurture personal paths to Jewish identity; and to cultivate community and friendship. Comprising the Freeman Center for Jewish Life and the Rubenstein-Silvers Hillel, JLD takes a pluralistic approach to Judaism to ensure that all Jewish students, regardless of affiliation, are welcome and included.

100% of JLD’s operating budget comes from donations from alumni, parents, and friends.
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