Becoming a bat mitzvah is a joyous time for 12-year-old girls, who get to celebrate along with family and friends. But the exuberance is tempered these days by the news from Israel we are so closely following. Sorah Shaffren is a bat mitzvah party motivator, as well as a singer-songwriter and choir director for women-only audiences. She has been experiencing both ends of the emotional spectrum—the high notes of celebration and the raw notes of sorrow, sometimes at the same event. Her bat mitzvah parties include a kumzitz as part of the event. After the high-energy games and dancing, the girls form a circle on the floor, sitting close to each other. Sorah leads them in singing songs, such as “Acheinu,” with soulful emotion.
“Each family finds their own way to express their celebration,” said Shaffren. “They might want to celebrate with a unique mitzvah project. Now, when our hearts and thoughts are with Israel, they add in something special, like writing letters to chayalim or ‘get better’ notes to those recovering in the hospital. They want to do an extra mitzvah in honor of Israel.” Shaffren’s dancers are available to facilitate projects like this.
Some families with relatives in Israel on active duty have postponed celebrations, but most are continuing. One family with a soldier fighting held the simcha and showed a video of the chayal. He told them, “Don’t stop your simchas for us. It gives us chizuk.”
Music and dancing are what most bat mitzvah girls want for the celebration. Shaffren keeps up with the latest in Jewish music and what kids like to hear through feedback from her 300 music students at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey and songs she hears on streaming platforms and from the girls she teaches at camp. As the program director of Camp Dina, Shaffren leads dance parties for hundreds of girls all summer long.
Shaffren’s set list of music is unique to each simcha, according to the family’s requests. Different preferences, genres and camp songs can contribute to the energy at each event. No matter where she goes, everyone requests music by her brother, Mordechai Shapiro. Sorah’s husband is the DJ and sound technician at her events. He accepts requests from friends of the bat mitzvah girl. “The bat mitzvah girl’s friends often make up a dance for her, and ask the DJ to play a specific song. We are happy to work this out with them at the party, and it is amazing to see the friendship and connection between the bat mitzvah girl and her peers,” Shaffren says.
“When we run women’s events, my husband stays in the background and off to the side as the sound technician. I can take requests directly since I’m playing guitar,” Shaffren said of kumzitzes and other events where she performs.
Shaffren works with the family in advance to build a schedule to include everything that’s happening. Each simcha is unique. Shaffren does a mix of her own songs, live singing and singing along with the dance music. She is the MC and ensures guests enjoy the natural flow of the party. She knows when each activity is supposed to happen—the project, group photo, family simcha set, energetic dancing set, montage, food and speeches.
Her favorite part of a bat mitzvah party is the finale, when everyone gathers around the Bat mitzvah girl and Shaffren leads the singing. It’s usually a very emotional moment, and mothers and grandmothers tell her afterwards how special it was.
Shaffren’s schedule these days can be an emotional rollercoaster. One day she’s doing a simcha and the next she’s at a Tehillim gathering, with a mixture of davening and singing. Since October 7, she has been doing two to three Tehillim events per week. “It’s very emotional, but these events unite people. It’s a heartfelt way of praying. While I’m singing, I’m seeing the faces of women, tears rolling down their faces. I hope it’s powerful and that any yeshua, small miracle or moment of salvation, we have seen has been in the merit of these gatherings.” She gives credit to the rebbetzins of the shuls she has been to. “I watch them get up and be open with their emotions, and model how to cope and turn to prayer. It’s very inspirational.”
She does challah bakes with groups, and while the dough is rising, she uses the time to perform. For one women’s group, she did what she called a “musical shiur.” “They asked me to speak and it just came out this way, speaking and singing,” she said. “The women hear the Torah idea. Then there is a musical pause, with a song related to the idea, to let that idea sink in. They sing along. It’s interactive and collaborative.” She is also busy now with a special production coming up for and by girls in the community. Meorot will be a performance of song and dance by Orthodox girls in grades five through 12 on Feb. 11, 2024. “The girls work on this performance all year,” said Shaffren. “They make new friends and are inspired by their instructors.” Shaffren and her sister, Naomi Schiff, wrote original music for the performance, which benefits NCSY summer.
In times of joy and pain, Shaffren’s music keeps women connected to Hashem and to each other. If you have a bat mitzvah coming up, or any women’s event where you want song and prayer to be at the heart of the get together, contact Sorah Shaffren at 845-323-1573. Follow her on Instagram @sorahshaffren.