Our Bat Mitzvah Celebration With The Community

We live in a provincial community in the UK and like in many provincial communities, attitudes towards women’s involvement in Jewish life tend to be quite conservative. I have had to admire Jewish feminist developments in London and other places from afar. Even in lay leadership, women’s roles are very traditional, focusing on the Ladies Guild. In planning for my daughter’s bat mitzvah, I pushed to get the celebration to be held on Shabbat and encouraged her to learn in a serious manner. And that was going to be that.

However, last September, my daughter and I were invited to a women’s shacharit (morning prayer) service on Shabbat in celebration of a friend’s bat mitzvah, where the bat mitzvah girl leyned (chanted) her portion from a chumash, a bound (not scroll) copy of the Torah. Perhaps not pushing at the boundaries but nevertheless for us, a unique, beautiful, and inspirational service for us to experience. Whilst I was telling a friend that such a thing in my own community would be unnecessarily controversial and would put my daughter under too much scrutiny and judgement, my daughter came up to me and said “Mummy, that’s what I want to do. I want to leyn!” And so her journey began…

READ: Empowering Bat Mitzvah Girls

Her birthday is on Lag Ba’omer and she was studying the story of Ruth for her d’var Torah, so deciding to leyn the Book of Ruth was a natural extension. Additionally, for some reason that no one can quite remember, our community doesn’t actually recite Ruth on Shavuot, so I spotted a gap in the schedule. I sought and gained my rabbi’s approval, as I really wanted this to be a community experience and my rabbi was very supportive in this endeavor – persuading the executive that this wasn’t a slippery slope into progressive Judaism, that our motives were correct and that there was no halakhic (Jewish law) problem with my daughter leyning Ruth. And then I had to find a teacher. Ruth is chanted with an unusual trope (cantillation marks), so it isn’t something that all teachers are comfortable teaching. In addition to this, we were running out of time and some teachers were skeptical about whether we would be able to do justice to this in the short amount of time. Eventually, in December, we found a willing and able teacher and the Skype lessons began. My daughter is musical and spent her long bus journeys to and from school with the music of Ruth in her ears. Progress was good, but it became clear that she might not get through the whole thing. So we decided to enlist the help of her friends. Five of her contemporaries agreed to learn between five and 10 verses and suddenly this wasn’t a one-woman show, it was a truly communal affair.

READ: Bat Mitzvah as Rite of Passage into Self and Community

A few days before Shavuot, we had a quick run-through with all of the girls and I realized then that we were creating something special. One of the fathers of one of the girls came up to me later with tears in his eyes to say that as a father of three girls he had never expected to hear one of his children leyn. My daughter was confident and excited and probably less terrified and better prepared than some of her friends but we all realized that it wasn’t a singing competition or a performance. It was an opportunity to engage in a totally unique way with the women of the community.

On the first day of Shavuot, in the afternoon, we laid out 50 chairs and some cheesecake and wine in the synagogue hall and waited to see who would turn up. Soon we were putting out extra chairs and by the time we started there were 70 women in the hall. Some friends and family came to show their support but others came out of curiosity and interest. I explained how this event had come about by way of a brief d’var torah, and then it was over to the girls. It was only as I sat down that I realized how incredibly brave they were. We didn’t have anyone there to correct or help them if they got stuck. They were facing the audience of mostly adults rather than the traditional leyning style of having your back to the audience and they had to trust me that this wasn’t in any way a hostile crowd. A lot to take in when you are 12 years old!

It should be said that they really excelled – not only in courage but also in delivery. The decorum was unbelievable. Everyone was following every word and really reveling in the beauty of the girls’ singing. A couple of women have subsequently told me that when they received the notice of this event, they groaned – what was the point? But by the end of it, they realized that this wasn’t controversial or a slippery slope. This was a beautifully told story.

I have received a lot of feedback from women thanking me for organizing this event. Sometimes we don’t realize that we needed something until we are given it. My daughter and her friends gave their time and energy to the community, and in doing so, had a sense of having really achieved something of worth. For my daughter’s part, she really has developed an appetite for leyning – next stop Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther, which is read on Purim)!

For more articles from The Torch on Orthodox bat mitzvah celebrations, click here!

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