Dying woman celebrates bat mitzvah at age 67

CHICAGO — Inside her hospice room, Fern Kravets spent her final days preparing others for her passage from life to death.

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer more than a year ago, she struggled with the reality that her life was slipping away. But she forged ahead with treatment, all the while continuing to check chores off her list.

Earlier this fall, in the chapel of Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenter, Kravets checked one last overdue chore off her list. Surrounded by family, friends and rabbis, she celebrated her bat mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage that traditionally marks the transition from youth to adulthood.

"This is so much more than I dreamed it could be," said Kravets, 67, after the brief ceremony in September."... The feeling I have in my soul, the warmth, security, love, spirit that God is with all of us and will always be with all of us and keep us always together."

"Always together," she repeated under her breath.

Kravets, the first woman to celebrate a bat mitzvah at the Midwest CareCenter, has taught patients, staff, friends and family that life's every moment is precious and there can be joy, even in pain, especially when family is near.

On Nov. 16, more than two months after the ceremony, her family gathered around her bedside, listening carefully to each fading breath, fearing it would be her last.

Rites of passage have always been Kravets' specialty. As a middle school guidance counselor, she equipped teenagers for the transition to high school. As a mother, she taught her four children values of hard work, compassion and generosity that would lead to success.

As a grandmother, she helped her grandchildren prepare for their b'nai mitzvot, learning Hebrew and studying portions of the Torah that corresponded with their 13th birthdays.

Watching her grandson tackle a second language while grappling with autism inspired her to prepare for her own bat mitzvah — a ritual most Jewish girls of her generation didn't celebrate.

"Women were never empowered around their Jewish education (when Kravets was growing up), although Judaism was always very important to Fern," said Rabbi Wendi Geffen, one of Kravets' teachers.

She was raised as a Reform Jew. Her parents attended North Shore Congregation Israel. Her father, Herbert K. Nelson, a savvy businessman and powerful lawyer, battled heart problems and stomach ailments most of his life and died at age 51. His success amid suffering taught her the importance of overcoming adversity.

"She hated the word can't," said her son Howard Kravets, 39.

But since beginning her bat mitzvah preparation in the fall of 2008, there have been plenty of opportunities to find an excuse.

In June 2009, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In November of that year, her mother died. In the spring, during a Passover seder at her daughter's home in Las Vegas, her husband, Robert, suffered a heart attack. By the time they returned home a month later, her disease had advanced.

In early September, doctors advised her to seek hospice care. She pleaded for surgery, despite cautions that it would not cure her, much less alleviate her pain.

"She loves life and doesn't want to be away from it for one day, for one minute," said her daughter Lisa Columbus, 43.

Jewish tradition teaches people never to give up on life. "If you're killing your soul and maintaining your body, you're not upholding life," Geffen said.

Kravets transferred to hospice two weeks after the surgery with doctors predicting she only had a few days to live.

Just when all hopes of celebrating her bat mitzvah were dashed, Kravets decided to nurture her soul and celebrate there. Though Geffen wanted to do it immediately, Kravets risked waiting a few more days for everyone in the family to get there.

She based her message on the unlikely inspiration Moses received from his father-in-law Jethro in the Hebrew Bible.

"Even grandchildren can be sources of inspiration," Kravets wrote."... And now I can truly say, 'L'dor va dor,' from generation to generation."

The moment overwhelmed many in the room. "To watch her accomplish this as her last piece of unfinished business was an inspiration for everybody," her son Michael Kravets, 37, said.

Brenda Clarke, 44, said she was happy to see her mother doing something for herself after doing so much for others, but also giving the family one more gift.

" (Judaism) has always been a part of her and she'd passed it on to us," Clarke said. "She was saying it's there for you if you need it."

Fern Kravets died Nov. 20.