Betsy Oasis Karotkin and her daughter, Jennifer Karotkin Adut both treasure their Jewish heritage. As mother and daughter, their stories are intertwined, and yet their journeys are completely different. “Life, like art, is full of surprises,” says Karotkin. An artist for more than 30 years, she has had a pottery studio in her home, spinning clay into art forms. “When you first start working with the raw material, you usually have a vision of its final appearance. However, the artistic process is not linear; there are lots of twists and turns.” Jewish identity also evolves through one’s lifetime, growing from one’s desire to learn, metered by opportunity and filtered through one’s personal lens.
Adut, also an artist, and now a mother of three-year old twins, adds, “I’ve heard that there are three experiences that mold a Jewish child’s identity: summer camp, a trip to Israel, and attending a Hebrew day school. My hope is that my children feel a sense of fullness and integration throughout their lifetimes, embracing the vibrancy of their heritage from their earliest years.” Quite expectantly, mother, daughter and grandchildren will have their own stories to tell based on their education, needs and observance.
Betsy Karotkin’s maternal grandfather was an Orthodox Jew who emigrated from Lithuania, always proud to be a Litvak. On Saturdays, the house was filled with the sound of opera. But on Sundays, it was the laughter of grandchildren who came to visit. Karotkin cherishes the memories of singing the classics from the American Songbook with all of her cousins.
When she was young, Karotkin remembers discovering that her father, born in Iassi, Romania, was a “Kohen.” Sadly, as an adult, she never had the opportunity to speak to him about his upbringing because he died prematurely. Born in Hartford, Conn., her mother was a strongwilled American woman who modeled the importance of family and helping others. As an only daughter with three brothers, Karotkin’s Jewish experience was nurtured by the preparation of traditional foods and the celebration of Passover. “I can still see my grandmother sitting in the kitchen, tasting my mother’s tzimmes each hour, and telling her what it needed. And, no one, absolutely no one, made taiglach like my mother,” she muses. Known for her own love of cooking, Karotkin stays inspired by the generations before her.
Filling a niche in Hartford, Karotkin’s father owned three greeting card shops that also sold books and Catholic religious articles such as rosary beads and statues. Some of the adult novels found their way into the Karotkin home. When she was in third grade, Karotkin discovered in her toy chest, a book called The Scourge of the Swastikas: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes. Reading about the Holocaust and its medical experiments left a deep impact on her, which resurfaced, many years later, as her motivation for working at the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.
Always studious, Karotkin enjoyed Sunday School at Temple Beth Israel from kindergarten through 12th grade. With thousands of members, her Reform synagogue employed a young assistant rabbi who was very involved with the youth, especially during the upper grades. “I always had great teachers, and I really cared about being Jewish. However, we never practiced any rituals or traditions in our home to reinforce my Sunday school learning,” she notes.
During summer camp, Karotkin’s Jewish identity blossomed, as a result of socializing with hundreds of Jewish kids. “If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would fund a three year Jewish summer camp experience for 10 to 12 year olds,” remarks Karotkin. “As an impressionable teen,” she adds, “camping provides a time of discovery, questioning and growth in a sheltered environment that makes it safe to find the joy in Jewish practice.”
Active in NEFTY, the New England Federation of Temple Youth, Karotkin was the editor of the Jewish newspaper for her peer group. She loved to write, keeping a diary from seventh grade through college. Her husband, Ed’s, name, appears in the pages of her earliest entries. “The first time he walked me home from school,” she reminisces, “we went through muddy fields. I ruined a new pair of $5 loafers, but it was a small price to pay for the beginning of our love affair.”
On an accelerated tract in high school, Karotkin was permitted to enroll in a class at Trinity College in Hartford, called “The Old Testament.” She loved her teacher and the chance to study Torah from a more academic perspective. Off to Brown for four years, she graduated in 1966, a bride of six months.
Due to Ed’s medical training, the Karotkins relocated several times before moving to Providence, R. I. where he began his fellowship in Neonatology at Brown University. Although the local Jewish community was very small, the young couple wanted to affiliate. They joined a tiny Reform congregation, which they frequently attended, truly enjoying the young rabbi’s guitar playing at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Jennifer Karotkin Adut’s first Jewish memory, at seven years old, was the stomach ache she had from eating way too many brownies at the synagogue’s Oneg Shabbat.
By the time Jennifer was eight, the family was lighting Shabbat candles. Karotkin retrieved her grandmother’s candlesticks from the back cabinets after she witnessed her two-year-old son, Jesse, sing Happy Birthday at a Chanukah menorah lighting.
That same year, Jennifer attended the Reform Movement’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp (a UAHC, now URJ camp) in Utica, Miss., while her younger sister, Hallie, tagged along. With Jewish education during the day, Jewish programming at night, singing, blessings and a whole day dedicated to Shabbat’s celebration, summer became the time to relax into the spirit of Judaism.
After the girls’ first summer away, Karotkin became the pottery counselor, teaching the campers to make their own Judaica out of clay—Kiddush cups, mezzuzot, honey pots, Shabbat candlesticks, and more. It was this experience of teaching pottery at Henry S. Jacobs Camp that really taught her the importance of Jewish camping. Adut’s father, Dr. Ed Karotkin, joined them to become the camp’s physician for two weeks each summer.
In 1978, the Karotkin family moved to Virginia Beach and finally settled down long enough to be in a Jewish community for more than one year. Instead of developing a passion for Judaism, however, summer camp introduced Jennifer to a new hobby—horseback riding. Although she attended Sunday School and afternoon Hebrew School, most of her free time was spent in a barn.
An undergraduate student at University of Virginia, Adut majored in Fine Arts, and made no effort to be part of any organized Jewish activities. During her junior year in Italy, however, she found a synagogue to attend High Holiday services and a Passover seder. As an outsider in a predominantly Catholic country, Jennifer began to explore her own religious heritage.
Ever spontaneous, she loved to travel and was always planning her next adventure. Phoning her parents from Italy one day, she asked casually, “Would you meet me in Israel in three weeks?” Twentyone days later, the three were riding on horseback in the Galilee and sightseeing throughout Israel.
Enamored with the country, Jennifer vowed to return to Israel. After college in 1991, despite the threat of a Gulf War, she made her dream come true. Ironically, her mother, then assistant director of United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, cancelled a Mission, knowing that the State Department advised against traveling to the Middle East. Not worried, Adut made her way to Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev, staying one year, happily picking peaches and avocados. Once a week, she traveled to the famous Bezalel Art Institute in Jerusalem to take a class in metalsmithing.
Back in the States, Adut received her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts at Indiana University. While on campus for three years, she was a weekly visitor to the Chabad House, becoming close friends with the rabbi and his wife. Adut admits, “After living in Israel, I wanted to participate more. Traditional Judaism appealed to me—it felt real and timeless.” Her mother continues, “Jennifer was always a voracious reader, so studying text came naturally.”
Upon graduation from IU, Adut moved to Washington, D.C. for 10 years, creating jewelry for galleries, and working in the non-profit world. “Many of my friends were very knowledgeable and fully observant. I learned so much from the modern Orthodox and Orthodox communities in D.C. I saw young people fully committed to leading Jewish lives, but also participating in the modern world. I found it inspiring.”
In 2004, Jennifer met her husband, David, when he was teaching at American University, and she was working for Jewish Women International, formally B’nai Brith Women. In 2005, they were married at Beth El and soon moved to Cincinnati. Back in Tidewater in 2011, David joined the faculty at Christopher Newport University, while Jennifer began working for Jewish Family Service in fundraising. Teaching fourth grade at Beth El’s Sunday School, she is now following in her mother’s footsteps.
For years, Karotkin was celebrated as the “Teacher of the Year” on Education Night for her time as a Sunday School teacher at Temple Emanuel. “My real Jewish education began when Rabbi Turchick’s wife asked me to teach her fourth grade class for two months while she visited family in Brazil.“ At 32 years old, Karotkin studied all week long to instruct her students. Having received her teaching credentials at Columbia University’s Teachers College, she was eager to impart her new knowledge. Each year, she advanced to a higher level, eventually teaching the confirmation class.
From 1989 until 2003, Karotkin worked for the UJFT, beginning as the human resource development professional and later, the assistant director. She led many missions to Israel, worked with interfaith couples, Young Leadership, and directed the CRC and the Holocaust Commission. In 2003, she retired from her professional life to take care of her mother who had become ill and recently moved to Tidewater. With time, she happily planned her two daughters’ weddings and welcomed seven grandchildren into the world.
“I’ve been so fortunate,” she confesses. “I have had the most wonderful husband and family. Ed has always been so supportive— in my professional career, my artistic endeavors, and in our home.”
Karotkin has enjoyed these later years watching her family grow, traveling with Ed for Physicians for Peace, chairing its Gala these past two years, and sitting on several local agency boards: Holocaust Commission, ODU’s Institute of Jewish Studies and Interfaith Relations, Congregation Beth El and The Virginia Arts Festival.
“Growing older has given me a better understanding and appreciation of those who came before me,” Karotkin notes. “How often I think about the painful decision that my grandparents made to leave their parents, their friends, and their countries of Romania and Russia in order to preserve their Jewish way of life. I accept the responsibility they passed on to me and hope that, despite living in a much more secular age, my grandchildren will also understand the importance of Judaism for themselves and for the world. It becomes incumbent upon each generation to make the conscious decision to embrace Judaism.”
Adut would like to provide her children with a strong Jewish foundation so that it becomes the lens from which they see the world. “I want them to know Jewish ritual, prayer, history and Hebrew from their earliest years, integrating its sophistication and nuances as they mature.” The three-year old twins attend Strelitz Early Childhood Center, and the Aduts plan to enroll them as HAT students for their elementary school years and send them to a Jewish overnight camp.
Each week on Shabbat morning, the Karotkins and the Aduts are found sitting together in the sanctuary at Beth El. Towards the end of the service, both parents and grandparents watch the twins run up to the bima to receive their weekly chocolate kiss along with the other young children. Experiencing the shared moment, each person’s reflections mirror his or her personal journey, and yet together they know that it is their shared legacy that gives them a lifetime blueprint for celebration.
by Karen Lombart