Celebrating Our Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah

“Some people will do anything to get out of synagogue on Simchat Torah” said my husband as we headed off to the hospital on Simchat Torah morning, anticipating the imminent arrival of our firstborn child.

Indeed he was right, I did not enjoy the Simchat Torah service when I felt so left out, standing on the balcony watching the men have aliyot (be called up to the Torah), and dancing with the Torah scrolls.

I was born on Hoshanah Rabbah and we went to Israel for the Sukkot of my 11th birthday. We were staying in a hotel on a non-religious kibbutz. The hotel was kosher and had a synagogue. But when we went to synagogue on Shemini Atzeret, there was a problem; no minyan (prayer quorum) and no service! I sobbed, “But this is the last year I can participate in Simchat Torah!” I had always been a committed synagogue goer, attending every Friday night, Shabbat morning and Shabbat afternoon. I sat beside my father, the gabbai (sexton) of our synagogue, but I was keenly aware that after my bat mitzvah I would be sitting on the balcony, peering down as a spectator. (In Orthodox synagogues, adult women are not allowed on the men’s side during worship services.)

During my pregnancy I had made it clear I wasn’t going to be naming our daughter in absentia, with my husband having an aliyah in synagogue while I was at home. When I came home from the hospital, my father-in-law, a prominent Orthodox rabbi, had already compiled a Simchat Bat service (Jewish welcoming ceremony for newborn girls) which we used the following Sunday. We named her Noa, inspired by the Daughters of Zelophechad who asked Moses and God for their inheritance. The Simchat Bat service, compiled by my father-in-law for his granddaughter, is now included in the Koren Siddur (prayerbook).

Fast forward 10 years, and now we had a Bat Mitzvah to plan. We had decided we would like our daughter to leyn (chant Torah), but apart from Purim megillah (Book of Esther) readings (which I had been attending with her since she was tiny) neither of us had ever heard a woman leyn before.

Around 15 months before the Bat Mitzvah, a partnership minyan started meeting once in six weeks. We walked for about half an hour in order to attend the minyan, where we heard women read Torah for the first time, and Noa sang Anim Zemirot, which was a positive experience for her. Afterwards, I read Rav Henkin’s article on women receiving aliyot; he isn’t in favor but allows them for the V’zot Habracha repetitions on Simchat Torah. We started to explore the possibility of a Simchat Torah Bat Mitzvah with a women’s reading (with men watching from the other side of the mechitza) as it would be more comfortable for family and friends than a partnership minyan would be. Women’s Torah readings do not happen in Orthodox synagogues in the UK, as the United Synagogue (and pretty much all the other Orthodox synagogues) do not allow women to read from a Torah scroll.

It took a lot of planning to be able to pull off a Simchat Torah service plus lunch in our home for 170, but that’s what we did; Noa leyned V’zot Habracha five times at our dining room table from a sefer Torah, (Torah scroll) facing around seventy women and girls. After each run through, all those who had never had an aliyah before recited the Shechechiyanu blessing together while the men watched from the other side of the mechitza. Watching Noa at her Bat Mitzvah was more empowering and moving than I could ever have imagined, and more importantly, it was such a positive and powerful experience for our daughter.

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