Empowering Bat Mitzvah Girls

A few years ago my family was living in Israel and attending a synagogue near our home. One Shabbat, our four year old daughter came running up to me in tears. Apparently she was not allowed on the bima, podium, with her big brother and his friends. Why? Because she was a girl, of course. I was amazed that she should be exposed to such blatant discrimination at four! I immediately vented to our rabbi friend with whom I regularly studied. How could we allow our daughter to feel so excluded? What would we do about her Bat Mitzvah? How was I to explain to her that she couldn’t read from the Torah in front of men? Her Bat Mitzvah would be just a few months after her brother’s Bar Mitzvah and the juxtaposition would be so blatant!

When I was slightly less hysterical, our rabbi gently asked me to remind him how old our daughter was. “Um, four.” “Right,” he responded, “you have a few years to figure it out before panicking!” He also offered me some other crucial advice: “Don’t try to emulate the Bar Mitzvah ceremony just for the sake of it. There are lots of things wrong with Bar Mitzvahs. If you want to make the Bat Mitzvah ceremony meaningful. Go back to first principles. Think of ways to make a coming-of-age milestone meaningful.”  So that is what I did.

My own Bat Mitzvah didn’t serve to inspire me, in spite of my reading the entire Torah portion (it being in a Reform synagogue). My overriding memory of it was beaming at my friends from the bima with my sparkling braces. And being forewarned by my sister not to giggle when blessed by the rabbi. I did. It was not exactly the meaningful ceremony I was hoping for our daughter.

Around that time, a cousin of mine was about to have her Bat Mitzvah. Relative to her secular upbringing, I was practically Lubavitch in my level of frumness. The plan was to have a party and her mother asked me how we could add a bit of Jewishness. So I prepared some questions and found a couple of quotations. Included were questions to ask her grandparents about their Jewish life, about Jewish foods and jokes and stories. I printed them out and literally cut and pasted them into a scrapbook. Very badly. We sat together a few times before her celebration and discussed some of the questions and read through Megillat Ruth as it was around the time of Shavuot. And when her party came round, she gave a beautiful d’var torah.

Fortunately, soon after, I met Juliet Simmons who would save me from having to cut and paste for the rest of my life.

Juliet also felt passionately about creating something beautiful and meaningful for Jewish girls.  She’d had a “typical” London Bat Mitzvah – speaking on the bima on a Sunday afternoon with about six other girls, but it wasn’t until she was much older that she’d discovered bits about being Jewish that she’d really loved – and met inspiring Jewish women.  We both felt that it was time to speak to the Jewish women who had inspired us as adults and share that inspiration (and that love of all things Jewish) with younger women and girls – why should they have to wait??! Juliet and I both found ourselves enthused with the idea of creating something that was magical and accessible and that would enhance this special time of coming-of-age for girls. And so began a process that took two years of research, meetings, discussions, brain storming and lots of tea and toast, and that eventually led to the creation of My Own Bat Mitzvah Book.

The book seeks to serve as a dialogue between the girls and their tradition. There are fourteen chapters written by different women, each exploring different facets of Judaism, from the concept of time in Judaism, to thinking about Shabbat, to contemporary Jewish culture. Each chapter affords the girls an opportunity to complete activities frequently involving interaction with family members. It is meant as a journey towards a milestone event as well as a keepsake for future generations.

We tapped into twenty extraordinary women, with very different backgrounds from across the globe, across denominations, and across cultures. We couldn’t have wished for a more diverse group–rebbetzins, educators, rock stars, peace activists, mothers, cooks, artists, comedians. By involving so many women, we hoped to breakdown stereotypes about what it means to be a “good Jewish woman,” and show that there are many paths to live a passionate and engaged Jewish life.

The book is interactive, in order to make the girls feel as though they are the next link in a beautiful and ancient chain of tradition. We want them to feel that they are a part of the Jewish conversation and are empowered to impact on what the religion is today. We very deliberately did not want to be prescriptive but at the same time we have kept it as halakhically on track as possible. As one of our contributors said: “It is deeply rooted in Jewish text and tradition but it also has a very introspective almost soul searching approach, inviting young girls to think about themselves in relation to themselves, their community, their God, and the world at large as they come of age.”

For me, the most meaningful chapter is the one called Making Laws your own. Even with a legal background, I know how intimidating Jewish law and text-based study can be and so we really wanted to break it down so that the girls can have a sense of the legal process and how laws change. In the book, we replicated a Talmud page and included explanations about the different commentaries around the page. We even highlighted the point that we are all part of the Jewish story by creating an open space for the girls to write their own commentary and add their own voices. After all, Judaism is a religion based in innovation!

Adolescent years are not easy, especially for girls wading through all of the conflicting messages from the media and our society. But Judaism has recognised that this is a time to be introspective, to think about ourselves, our role in relation to the rest of the world, to examine our identities and to draw on the role models around us. We hope the book helps to empower girls to figure out their own paths, not just through Judaism, but through becoming a woman.

I’m hoping that when it is my daughter’s time to become a Bat Mitzvah, she won’t have to be worried about whether she’s allowed to stand on the bima, and that she feels empowered to make choices about how to celebrate her own Jewishness and her identity as a woman.

And perhaps it will be my son complaining that it is unfair, that a keepsake Bar Mitzvah book doesn’t exist for him.

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