When I was twelve, my heroines were Eleanor of Aquitaine, Ginger Rogers, and Israeli women’s rights activist Professor Alice Shalvi. I staunchly believed in the importance of equality between men and women without actually understanding that there were people who didn’t. If you had asked me, I would proudly have told you that I was a feminist. (I still am, for that matter.)
As such, and having grown up at B’nai Jeshurun, a progressive Jewish community in New York City, in the first place, my Bat Mitzvah was both a feminist act and a completely ordinary event, taken for granted basically since my birth. I remember hearing from my parents that my Bat Mitzvah was really my twelfth birthday, no matter how we celebrated it or when I was called up to the Torah, and that technically that would mark the beginning of my accountability as a full participant in my Jewish community. I also remember learning that Bnot Mitzvah as we now celebrate them are a phenomenon less than 100 years old, beginning in 1922 with the Bat Mitzvah of Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement.
I diligently learned how to read Torah and Haftarah and lead the Torah and Musaf service along with my Bat Mitzvah partner (we split the portion). For me, though, the most engaging but also most difficult was working on my Dvar Torah, which turned out to be a tribute to my budding feminism: it was an encouragement to view Rahav, the prostitute in the walls of Jericho chapter of Joshua’s story, as a heroine, a brave figure who shouldn’t be written off but rather admired. And on the week of my Bat Mitzvah, I wore a Tallit and Tefilin, and on the day itself I read Torah, lead part of the service, and gave my interpretation of the reading to the community, all in the awe-struck, frightened, adrenaline-addled haze that one might expect of any 12 year old at such a moment.
So, although I had never had to contemplate that if I had grown up in a different context I would not be having this experience, my parents, teachers, and friends did their best to emphasize to me that this was a privilege which, considering history, I should not take for granted. It was a powerful experience for me, and a few years later, I began to work with Bnei Mitzvah myself, teaching children to read from the Torah and helping them to write their Divrei Torah in preparation for their moment in front of the community.
When I got to Berlin almost a year ago, I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, the Rabbi of the Oranienburger Straße Synagogue in Berlin, a Conservative/Masorti community in a historic Synagogue in the center of the city. During a very fruitful meeting, she and I discussed the possibility of me working with her to tutor a group of 6 girls who were going to become Bnot Mitzvah at her synagogue later in the year. Shortly after, I was in a room with the 6 girls and Rabbi Ederberg one day after school, discussing which of them was going to come work with me on her Haftarah first, while the others continued their group lesson with Rabbi Ederberg.
And so it went on for the next few months, with me joining Rabbi Ederberg and the girls for our lessons once a week for two hours at the Community building. As they reviewed and practiced as a group, I would take the girls out one at a time to practice. I learned a lot of German from trying to keep up with their rapid middle school speech, and they asked me lots of questions about New York, my family, the community I grew up in, and even about what my Bat Mitzvah was like. I really enjoyed working with such a smart, determined group of girls on a subject close to my heart, and I hope that they got the benefit of working with a young Jewish woman who not only gladly participates in Jewish life, but who moreover expects to be allowed to participate in Jewish life yet doesn’t take that equal participation for granted.
In about a week, the last of these girls will become a Bat Mitzvah, ending the group effort of working towards a common goal, a common experience. They have each had their struggles – overcoming shyness, doing battle with Hebrew vowels, repeatedly asking if they were having a Bat Mitzvah for themselves or for their parents, and if it was for them, what they wanted it to mean and what part of the experience did they want to be emphasized – and they’ve each done a brilliant job as they’ve been called to the Torah and read the Haftarah. I’ll be giving them each a copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as a gift during their first follow-up lesson in a few weeks, and the community at Oranienburger Str. has been kind enough to post about the experience on their website.
Soon I’ll be beginning with a group, this time co-ed (its being all girls was a coincidence last time), and now my work will be focused more on group lessons and discussions with the 11 and 12 year olds. I’m excited to get to know them and to tackle these questions with the future Bnei Mitzvah:
What is the meaning of this experience in the Jewish tradition? What does it mean to you personally? What do you think it will mean to you later? How do you see the connection between your being called up to the Torah in front of the community and the beginning of your full participation in the community as a responsible member of it? How do you interpret your piece of our story which you will be reading, your “bit of earth” which you have been assigned? What story do you want to tell when you get up in front of the community to mark this moment?