Bat Mitzvah in the 90’s

Since 1922, when Judith Kaplan [Eisenstein] became the world’s first bat mitzvah, much has changed. Then, the bat mitzvah was a chance to claim that girls were “as good as”—the “same.” Now it is an exhilarating opportunity to improvise, to search for the richest, most authentic marriage of tradition and change. For those who want to get maximal meaning and naches out of this rite of passage, here is a spot check on some innovative ideas.

Gloria Rubin, a rabbinical student from Oakland, New Jersey, wanted her daughter Rebecca’s bat mitzvah to incorporate all the aspects of Judaism meaningful to her family; Torah, prayer, tzedakah (charity), community, and Jewish music. Rebecca’s ceremony took place on Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of a new Hebrew month, traditionally a festival for women. The Rubins invited women and men to don t’fillin and tallit for an egalitarian morning service where Rebecca led the prayers, chanted Torah, and discussed the significance of the new moon. She was “twinned” with an Ethiopian girl, and asked guests to bring specific school supplies for her twin’s classroom in Israel.

Rebecca’s invitations solicited personal information from guests which her mother collated into a booklet of lighthearted sketches. This facilitated introductions at the luncheon during which a badchan (a traditional shtetl jester) led dancing and entertained with mime, stories and juggling.

The Kauvars of Denver chose Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, as the time for their daughter to celebrate her own growing and blossoming. “There are so many wonderful Jewish themes relating to festivals—Succoth, Chanukah, Purim,” Joanne Kauvar comments, “Why do families opt for ones like Disney?” The Botanical Gardens proved an ideal location for their daughter’s event.

At her Tu B’Shvat bat mitzvah, Eloise Kauvar led her guests through blessings, explained 15 traditional fruits and grains, and connected Tu B’Shvat to ecologically endangered environments. Guests celebrated at Tu B’Shvat “stations” while musicians played. Jewish National Fund boxes and literature on rain forests afforded guests an opportunity to give tzedakah, and each child received a sapling to plant at home.

Prior to the Tu B’Shvat “seder,” Joanne had arranged a “women’s circle,” where adult female friends and family gathered to share their wisdom and to offer symbolic gifts. “Adolescent girls don’t have much opportunity for direct sharing with adult women,” notes Joanne. “For Eloise to be the focus of attention was intense.”

Elizabeth Wolf of Raleigh, North Carolina also seeks to create shared experiences between mothers and daughters through her tallit-making workshops. “So much of the bat/bar mitzvah experience,” she explains, “is taken away from parents, that a shared tallit project becomes a precious moment.” Initially begun as a practical endeavor, the project gradually becomes a spiritual one—a shared occasion when mother and daughter complete a demanding task and create a singularly designed artifact that uniquely reflects one girl at one period in her life.

Julie Ochs of Morristown, New Jersey, chose to celebrate her bat mitzvah at a modern Orthodox synagogue, a decision her Conservative-leaning parents, Vanessa and Peter Ochs, respected. Julie led a Sunday morning shacharit service and delivered a d’var torah on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which she and her father had studied each Shabbat for the previous two years. Vanessa created a personal blessing for Julie as an emerging adult and presented Julie with three special gifts: her great-grandfather’s Shulchan Aruch (Code of Laws) from his grade school in Eastern Europe, her grandparents’ Tanakh (Bible) in English, and her grandmother’s recipe for gefilte fish.

For many Jewish families the occasion of a bat mitzvah raises the question of “where do we fit in?” Some join a synagogue; others struggle with the imperfections of congregations with non-egalitarian practices.

Sara Gilbert wanted a bat mitzvah ceremony for her daughter Molly that would provide the sense of community she felt within her Orthodox synagogue in Denver, yet one which would enable Molly to chant Torah and haftorah— roles not permitted to women in Orthodox services led by men. “It was important for me to provide a model of taking on a personal religious challenge and breaking new ground as a woman,” says Sara. With the guidance of the Women’s Tefilla (prayer) Network, Sara and Molly lobbied for a halakhically acceptable service led by women in which certain prayers requiring a quorum are omitted, and the men sit behind a mekhitza instead of the women. The synagogue acquiesced. Thanks to the perseverance of the Gilberts, a monthly women’s service is now a tradition at their synagogue.

For families without strong religious practices, bat and bar mitzvah can become the moment at which families truly define their personal dedication to Jewish life.

Betsy Dolgin Katz, curriculum consultant to Chicago’s Community Foundation for Jewish Education, calls the bat mitzvah “a teachable moment” for the family, a potentially powerful anchor for Jewish adolescents at a turbulent time. Katz urges parents to frame the occasion as a beginning, “moving children from the fun, child-oriented aspects of Judaism to the more lasting, challenging richness of Jewish study which emphasizes personal growth within a Jewish community.”

Some educators believe the rite of passage needs to involve a community service project for which the child takes responsibility, triggering both personal growth and the acquisition of new skills.

Danny Siegel, writer and director of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, pairs children with mitzvah projects around the world. His foundation provides lists of practical long-term mitzvah projects. Siegel suggests, for example, donating a percentage of bat mitzvah gift money to a charity the girl selects.

Regardless of the family’s choices, the bat mitzvah is a formal ritual that marks the frequently awkward transition from child to adult. Many parents recognize this critical period in their daughters’ development by choosing female rabbis and cantors who act as teachers, mentors and positive Jewish role models. Finding a knowledgeable female tutor may facilitate a recognition and exploration of gender issues as part of the bat mitzvah curriculum.

Rochel Trugman of Denver tutors girls in their birth parshot (the Torah portion read on the week of one’s birth according to the Jewish calendar). Trugman espouses the Kabbalistic belief that at the moment of birth one’s astrological constellation (“mazal”) is on the rise. Each birth parsha, therefore, contains a clue to the challenges an individual might face in her life. Her students also study the meanings of their own Hebrew names, and the stories of female biblical role models to whom they are encouraged to look, later in life, when they need inspiration.

Rabbi Judith Beiner believes the onset of puberty and the issues it raises about self-esteem, sexuality and relationships should share some place in a curriculum. “If I had to advocate the development of any ritual for bat mitzvah I would celebrate the onset of menses. It is rarely discussed in Western society, and yet it is probably the biggest issue in a young girl’s life.”

Judith and Joe Rosenstein of New Brunswick, New Jersey chose Rosh Chodesh for their daughter Dalia’s bat mitzvah, a time that suggests the natural merging of the religious and the personal. Dalia, a serious dancer, wished both to read from the Torah and to dance to musical accompaniment. She studied prayers and psalms dealing with praises to God and the new moon, and then choreographed five selections with help from a dance teacher. Dalia says she is proud that “As a feminist in a Jewish community I was able to read from the Torah and dance, which I love. Dancing out the words I had to really feel them, and that gave me a stronger sense of my Jewish identity.” Observed Judy Petsonk, a guest, afterward, “You could see, in the adolescent girl dancing, the woman she was about to become.”

Vivienne Kramer lives in Denver, Colorado. Her daughter’s recent hat mitzvah celebration included a “women’s circle. “

Bubbe on the Bimah
by Michelle Clark

At my daughter’s bat mitzvah, my 70-year-old mother was called to the Torah for the first time. After her aliyah, when people were shaking her hand and saying yasher koacb (“may you go from strength to strength”), my mother said, “I always do this for other people, and now they’re doing it for me.”

For me, it was giving something to my mother which she would otherwise not have received in this lifetime, and in a broader sense, righting an injustice.

My parents, uncles and aunts are moderately observant Conservative Jews who grew up Orthodox. At my daughter’s bat mitzvah the services were led by a 60-ish woman (the president of the synagogue), and the Torah reader was a woman. Although I hadn’t planned it this way, this turned out to provide my extended family an alternative Jewish experience, something they had never been offered before. And they really liked it.

Grandpa on Tape
by Lois Gross

The only thing we knew about my father’s childhood was that he was born in Russia in 1910. My dad never discussed the past. Apparently, it was much too painful.

My daughter Dayna’s bat mitzvah provided me with the leverage I needed to get my dad to talk about his childhood. The funny thing about my father as a grandfather is that he will often do things for his grandchildren that he never would have done for his children.

The summer before Dayna’s simkha I began talking to my father about the fact that he was the last surviving member of the family from the Old Country. I thought that it was important for him to share his history with Dayna while there was still time. I emphasized that this was the best possible present he could give his granddaughter.

My father is a stubborn man. I sent him several autobiographies (notably, my entire collection of George Burns books), a list of several questions for him to respond to, and some blank tapes. Essentially, I took away all of his objections (“I don’t know what to soy,” “I don’t have anything to record on,” etc.). The questions were as non-threatening as I could make them, involving things like what games he had played, what songs he song, and where he went to school. I also, however, asked things like what incidents of anti-Semitism he had encountered, and what it was like growing up during a war.

Grandpa’s tape—which meant a great deal to Dayna— showed up in her speech only once, when she referred to the “grand-grandmother who worked hard to keep the family going when my grant-grandfather come to America.” Not much, you think? You should have seen the look on my father’s face at this mention of his mother. That one reference transcended the generations as nothing else could have and provided me with one of those rare life moments when I knew I had done exactly the right thing to please a parent.

Simkha at a Special Site
by Sharon Chisvin

Camp Massad, a Hebrew-speaking camp on the Gimli highway 45 miles north of Winnipeg, is known, not for its water skiing, swimming pool or indoor plumbing (ail lacking here), but simply for its spirit. This ruach led Massad to initiate its first-ever rite of passage ceremony, on June 26, 1993, when Ryla Shawn Braemer was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.

That Ryla became a bat mitzvah at Camp Massad was no accident. The camp was the place where her mother and father met and fell in love and where Ryla herself had spent the past two summers. At the time of Ryla’s bat mitzvah, her mother, Leah, had just organized Massad’s first-ever camper reunion. From the start, former Massadniks were involved in the bat mitzvah preparations. Invitations were hand-painted by a family friend who had honed her artistic talents as a counselor at Massad, where elaborate backdrops and stage sets are a customary part of the summer’s dramatic productions. The bat mitzvah choir was comprised of former Massad staff who had all at one time or another sung in the Shabbat choir at camp. And the Saturday morning bat mitzvah service was led by a family friend and khazan, the camp program director.

In casual dress, 200 of the Braemer family’s friends and relatives, nearly 100 of them children under age 12, made the early morning drive out to the camp. Warmed by hot coffee, they sat on newsprint covered, graffiti-scarred benches. The khazan led the congregation in the basic Shabbat morning service accompanied by the boisterous, playful harmonizing of the choir. Parents, aunts, and uncles proudly recited Torah portions which they had studied for weeks. Ryla, draped in a tallit by her two grandmothers, offered up two Torah readings before tackling her maftir and haftorah. The Torah had been borrowed from her Hebrew day school. The makeshift bimah had been constructed the day before by her father and uncle.

Ryla’s parents addressed Ryla, saying they wished above all for her to be blessed with the kind of friends who were celebrating with them that day.

Under umbrellas and makeshift head coverings adult guests were ushered through the rain to the chadar ochel, the comp dining hall, while the children were taken under the wing of camp counselors. The dining hall was decorated much as it is on any given camp Shabbat, with fresh cut flowers and handmade decorations. The delicious kiddush luncheon was prepared by none other than the camp cook.

Here was a bat mitzvah celebration that unfolded on a site where love of Judaism and Israel is instilled in hundreds of campers each summer

For post bar/bat mitzvah youth, Liz Cutler has created a Jewish Outward Bound experience known as “Mosh West.” Cutler saw no ceremonies celebrating rites of passage in American life other than “getting drunk, getting laid, and getting one’s driver’s license,” Inspired by ancient puberty rites which combine tests of spiritual and physical endurance with opportunities to realize responsibility and commitment to community. Cutler designed a wilderness experience for youngsters entering 10th grade (or older) which removes them from their “comfort zone.” They undergo a physically, mentally and emotionally challenging 35-day course that integrates Judaic programming and prayer, and provides opportunities to talk about sexuality with a rabbi and counselors. Ritualized coming-of-age ceremonies include a 24- hour isolation period in the wilderness, adopting a “spirit name” symbolic of newfound strengths, and a “mikveh” ceremony in the Colorado River.