It was just another beautiful, soulful, tearful b’nai mitzvah … times four.
For the four siblings who came into this world more or less together 13 years ago — and even more so, for their parents — everything has come in multiples.
Four baby seats. Four beds. Four school and summer camp registrations. Four birthday presents, year after year.
“There always has been four of everything,” confirms Nathan, the only boy in the foursome completed by Emma, Noa and Elie Friedman-Lowenthal.
The quads — technically two sets of twins — live in Mill Valley with moms Shelley Friedman and Tania Lowenthal. At age 13, they have become accustomed to sharing every experience of their young lives with one another. It was to be the same for the timeless Jewish rite of passage.
The rare four-sibling b’nai mitzvah was held Nov. 17 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, followed by a party at the JCC of San Francisco. The ceremony was conducted by Rabbi Sydney Mintz and Cantor Marsha Attie, both of whom have longstanding relationships with the couple and their children. Mintz was one of six rabbis present at the baby namings 13 years ago, as well as at Nathan’s bris.
To mark the occasion of the quads becoming b’nai mitzvah, Mintz took four Torahs out of the ark.
“They were able to hold the intensity of the room with a tremendous amount of love and humor and emotion — the intensity of these quads becoming b’nai mitzvah in front of 375 people,” Friedman recounted. “They did a masterful job of keeping it both personal and humorous.”
“There was not a dry eye in the whole place,” said Lowenthal.
The family’s journey to that special day began before the babies were even born. Friedman, former marketing director at the JCCSF, and Lowenthal, director of admissions at the Brandeis School of San Francisco, became domestic partners before it was legal to marry in California.
Desiring children, they both became pregnant at the same time. They would have considered themselves lucky to bring one or two healthy children to term. But Friedman gave birth to Nathan and Noa in October 2005 and Lowenthal delivered identical twins Elie and Emma less than two weeks later.
From the very first day after bringing the babies home — Lowenthal said her initial reaction was “What do we do? Who are all these people?” — the couple realized that they could cope as long as they had a network of support, as well as a management plan.
“By the second day we created systems,” said Friedman, who soon left her JCCSF position to manage the family full time. “We made charts. We charted every burp, swallow, pee and poop.”
The network came through for them as well: friends, colleagues, community and family members helped out every step of the way. The kids moved through the developmental stages together: learning to walk, talk, make friends — and play basketball (the girls also play volleyball).
They attended the JCCSF preschool and went to Jewish summer sports camp in Los Angeles. The girls are now in seventh grade at the Brandeis School. (Nathan transferred to Marin Primary and Middle School in fifth grade.)
The family of six traveled together, visiting family in Florida, Los Angeles, Israel, and Cali, Colombia, where Lowenthal was born and raised in a Conservative family. Her grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Poland and Germany who made their way to Colombia. Friedman grew up in a liberal Reform household in Los Angeles, and also had survivors in her lineage.
“For Tania and I, one of the threads that is strong between us is that we’ve both been very clear in our Jewish identities,” Friedman told J. “When we became parents it wasn’t at all hazy for us — we knew we would plant the seeds of Jewish identity in our children.”
During the year leading up to the b’nai mitzvah, the four teens “dug into the preparation very seriously and with great commitment,” Friedman recounted.
“It was special to all of us, but I also saw it as a tradition, something that most Jewish people do,” Emma said.
“I think after we’d spent all this time in the Jewish community growing up, it was logical to have a bar or bat mitzvah,” Noa commented. “But it was also what we wanted.”
Each teen chose a different subject for the drash portion of the ceremony, reflecting on an aspect of the reading. “We prepared together, but everyone wrote their own,” Elie explained.
Emma offered a perspective on feminism. Nathan spoke about “favoritism,” sharing some thoughts on being the one male in a family with five females.
Noa’s drash focused on telling the truth and the importance of being truthful about who you are. That “rather than trying to be perfect, you should be a mensch,” Friedman summarized.
The Friedman-Lowenthal family itself was the subject of Elie’s drash. She discussed biblical texts on love, and noted that biblical brothers and sisters sometimes came from different parents, all to support her commentary that her family is just like any other. In fact, she said, her family was quite conventional compared with some families in the Bible.
“They articulated, in their individual ways, aspects of their own Jewish identity but also other identities that are important,” Friedman said. “They’re comfortable with their Jewish identity, being surrounded by family who loves them so much and a community that has seen them very much as individuals from Day One.”
“Their comfort level comes from having been encouraged to be themselves,” Lowenthal confirmed. “They are Colombian, come from an anonymous sperm donor, and are the descendants of Holocaust refugees.”
For their b’nai mitzvah service project, the teens raised $7,000 for the local nonprofit Canal Alliance, supporting Latino immigrants in Marin County. Throughout the year, Nathan, Elie and Noa also made lunches for the homeless at Glide Memorial Church, while Emma volunteered her time at a housing center for homeless young adults.
Friedman called the four together “such a bonded force,” and said it has been their ongoing task as parents to help each of them to individuate. “We work very hard to see the child in front of us,” she stressed. “Every single morning and every night, both of us have one-on-one time with each child.”
Some of the Colombian cousins made it to San Francisco for the b’nai mitzvah, as did relatives from Friedman’s side. The ceremony and party afterward were followed Sunday by a daylong brunch for the entire extended family. For Emma and Nathan, that was the weekend’s highlight; Emma because she enjoyed the all-family volleyball game, and Nathan because of “not having to do anything to prepare anymore.”
Noa’s favorite part was the Shabbat dinner, when Emma surprised all of them with a song.
“The beautiful aspect of the b’nai mitzvah was how simultaneously extraordinary and really ordinary it all was, because it’s just something Jewish teens do and have done for thousands of years,” said Friedman, “just the beauty of knowing that the parashah of Nov. 17, 2018, would have produced the same reading by any young people around the world.”
“After 13 years of raising four children in a Jewish home, it was very authentic to who we are,” Lowenthal said. “Yes, they are quads, but at same time we were just manifesting how we live our lives every day.”