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Bat Mitzvah Reflections 

In Celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the 1st American Bat Mitzvah in March 2022, Temple Sinai women reflect on their personal experience of the Bat Mitzvah

Mimi Botkin

I was raised in the 50's and 60's in a Conservadox household where a bat mitzvah never entered my mind, since we drove to an Orthodox shul every Saturday morning where I never saw a female on the bimah.

In 1986 when we joined Temple Sinai, my religious life took a 180-degree turn. I took an active part in all activities, including sending my daughters to religious and Hebrew school, knowing that they would have the opportunity I was denied: a bat mitzvah.

One Monday night in 1987 as I was about to leave my adult ed class, my friend turned to me and asked, "Are you staying for the Hebrew class?" Since I couldn't think of a good reason to say no, I followed her into the class that would change my life.

The Hebrew class was meant as a preparation for an adult bat mitzvah. Along with four other women ranging in age from 30-something to 50-something, I started from the very beginning, literally. We learned to actually read the prayers for the service we would eventually lead. We then were presented with our Torah portion, Achare Mot, and our tutor divided it to give us each three lines to read. One of my lines was "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind." One of the sources I consulted, Nechama Lebovitz, wrote that line also meant to prevent a stumbling block from being put there in the first place. I interpreted that as the overarching goal of teaching, my life goal and passion. From there was born my d'var Torah.

April 29, 1988, arrived, the long-awaited Shabbat of our b'nei mitzvah. As I ascended the steps to the bimah, my knees knocked and my palms were sweaty. Finally it was my turn to chant. As I stepped up to the unrolled Torah and took the yad from Rabbi Margie Slome's hand, I looked out to the first row of the congregation where I saw the faces of my mother, my sister, and my two daughters ages, eight and four.

That day began my life as an authentic Jew.

 

Joanna Roth Butler

 

December 19, 1975—It was a crisp, cold Friday night with the stars shining brightly. I was 12. I would not turn 13 for a few weeks. The rabbi said that traditionally girls had had their bat mitzvah at 12—little did I know then that he was referencing Judith Kaplan! 

I had practiced for this night for months with our cantor, and I was ready! The very first time I stood at the pulpit that night, I looked out at the sea of people. I caught the eye of one of my favorite people, a rabbi from camp, who nodded and smiled at me, silently assuring me that I was up to the task! I chanted and spoke clearly and loudly; I used my hands when I asked the congregation to rise and be seated. I was in charge and I was enjoying becoming a bat mitzvah! Not surprisingly, I decided that night that I wanted to be a rabbi when I grew up, and that indeed was my life goal for many years. Obviously that did not happen, but I have no regrets.

 


Susan Cohen, adult bat mitzvah

I grew up mostly outside the US, and chances for religious education were limited. My parents gave my sister and me books about being Jewish and we celebrated Hanukah and Passover, but that was about it. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but as I became an adult, married, and had children, I began to feel uncomfortable about my lack of knowledge about Judaism. As the kids learned in religious school, I read their books too. In the meantime, my husband converted to Judaism and had his Bar Mitzvah. At that time, I wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah at the same time, but the kids were young, and it wasn’t feasible.

In the meantime, I became quite involved in the Women of Temple Sinai, and it the Women of Reform Judaism, but always feeling a bit lost during religious services. Finally, the time came when Temple Sinai offered an adult Bat Mitzvah class that I was able to take, and in June of 2017, I had my opportunity. It was a big class, 13 adults, and Temple Sinai made a big deal of it with a communal dinner and lots of publicity. It made me feel great to have that kind of affirmation. I didn’t feel that being a woman having her bat mitzvah was that big a deal because, of course, that’s what we do in the Reform movement. But I was really proud of myself, and of all the people in my class.

 

Laura Fehl, adult bat mitzvah

I had the honor of celebrating my bat mitzvah with 14 other Temple Sinai members, the majority of whom were women, some old friends and some new friends, back on June 9, 2017, a month before I became President of Women of Temple Sinai. While it was not your typical B’nai Mitzvah experience, it was a celebration I shared with my daughter, my son-in-law, friends and the entire Temple Sinai community, stepping up to read Torah and lead services, along with a dinner and an unforgettable festive celebration. Our entire Temple Sinai community worked on creating this amazing celebration. My adult B’nai Mitzvah group picture shows up on Facebook as a perpetual memory.

The most special part of my experience was wearing the same tallis my daughter wore at her bat mitzvah in May of 2009.

The parallel was that I had first been introduced to Judaism at around the age of 13 in an unconventional way through 3 Jewish women embracing my mother and my family during a very challenging time in our lives. It made such an impact on me that I chose to embrace Judaism myself as a young adult.

Entering the sacred space of Judaism and embracing the Jewish traditions from the start, the adult b’nai mitzvah experience solidified my lifelong commitment to Judaism. A rite of passage in standing up and taking my place within our community was one of the most impactful Jewish experiences I have had in my 30 plus years as a Jew.

It was truly an honor to stand with my adult b’nai mitzvah class in front of my congregation. This memory will always hold a special place in my heart.

 

Janis Fink, adult bat mitzvah

It was September 1986. We were living in Shrewsbury, MA having moved from MD about 2 years before. Our daughter Emily was almost 6 years old, entering kindergarten. Our son Matthew was 6 months old. We were members of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westboro, MA, a young congregation. Like me, its Rabbi, Debra Hachen, was a young mother. Her youngest child was about the same age as Matt. She and I quickly became good friends.

I had grown up Protestant and was pretty religious growing up, a regular in youth group, often singing in choir. When I married a Jewish man, neither of us was active religiously, and our religious difference was not an issue for us. It was only after becoming friends with Jewish couples and attending Jewish services regularly that I started to become interested in Judaism. Eventually I started to study with a young Hillel rabbi and converted in 1975. Over the next 10 years we joined Reform temples where we lived and attended Friday night services a couple of times a month. I began to want to feel more comfortable in services and started to think about preparing for an adult bat mitzvah.

Now in MA I approached my rabbi and friend, Debby, with the idea of studying with her toward that goal and she agreed to work with me individually. My goals were to learn to develop skills to read and chant Torah, to prepare a d’var Torah and, most importantly, to get really comfortable with Shabbat services. Debby made a cassette tape of the Torah portion, and we began. On the cassette I could hear two voices, Debby’s and the happy babbling sounds of her baby in the background. Our study sessions were often interrupted by nursing and caring for our young babies together.

I liked learning to chant Torah and Haftorah. The student in me came out and I practiced a lot. I attended all the bar/bat mitzvah services on Saturday mornings over the next year, marveling at the skills of the b’nai mitzvot as they chanted and led services. As a fellow student, I knew and really respected what it took to do this. The kitchen island became the Torah reading table as I practiced leading the Shabbat morning services. I remember more about learning to chant than preparing my d’var. When the morning arrived, I felt nervous but also ready and proud of my new skills. I felt I had achieved a real step toward my goal of becoming a competent Jewish adult. It was a very important moment in my Jewish life.
 

Anita Gordon, adult bat mitzvah

My sister is six years younger than I. When she was offered the opportunity to be bat mitzvah, I was so jealous. I carried the 'wanting to be' into adulthood. Oh, I had had the Confirmation, but a bat mitzvah is a different honor.

When I was in my fifties, and raising my granddaughter, I looked forward to the celebration of her bat mitzvah. She told me she didn't want one and mistakenly bargained with me "You didn't have a bat mitzvah, and if you didn't, I am not either!" It didn't help telling her it was not the custom in those days. And I told her if I become bat mitzvah, will you? Not expecting me to, she said she would. That was the year I signed up for an adult bat mitzvah class at Temple Sinai (Pittsburgh). I was bat mitzvah that Spring, and my granddaughter the next year!


Rabbi Sara Rae Perman, bat mitzvah

My Bat Mitzvah took place on May 22, 1964 (parasha Naso) at Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls, NY. As our congregation only had Friday night services, that was when my service and all B’nai Mitzvah services were held (with the exception of one of my classmates). Although my birthday is in March, my Bat Mitzvah was held in the spring as we had a student rabbi, Robert Siegel. Since we only had our student rabbi twice a month, my Hebrew teacher was a soldier from New Jersey, Aaron Bernstein who was stationed at Fort Niagara.

I had always had a strong Jewish identity and wanted to translate my Torah portion. Though I only had a reading knowledge of Hebrew, with really no knowledge at all of Hebrew grammar or vocabulary, but with the help and encouragement of my teacher and rabbi, and the little Ben Yehudah Hebrew English dictionary, I translated the section of the parasha that I read and learned it and the Torah portion by memorizing them. We used the old Union Prayerbook so there was very little Hebrew in the service. I did not chant either the Torah portion or the Haftarah and the Haftarah was only read in English. My speech (which I still have) was about education tying it to the Haftarah portion about the birth of Samson and the instructions to Samson’s parents of how to raise him.

During the last rehearsal there was a bee flying around in the sanctuary and I remember telling my parents not to kill it, as it might be Jewish. I also remember that I was allowed to wear heels for the first time at my Bat Mitzvah (low ones). When it was time for the rabbi to bless me, since he was still a student, he placed his hands on my shoulders instead of my head. I remember feeling like he was pushing me, yet I was afraid to put one of my feet back to better balance myself so I felt like we were battling one another. (By the way this led me to tell young women in the congregation as they were preparing their Bat Mitzvah to bring the shoes they were going to wear to our last rehearsal so they would be comfortable and realize how it felt to walk carrying the Torah around the sanctuary if they were going to be wearing heels.)

I remember the sanctuary being packed to the gills, which my parents had anticipated so they had set up the downstairs social hall with speakers so that those who could not be seated in the sanctuary could at least hear the service. My father’s oldest brother and his wife were late and had to be seated downstairs which upset them. Also our congressman, Henry P Smith III was present probably because my father as an attorney knew him. (The congressman was seated upstairs.)

The only picture I had was taken outside by the signage telling of my Bat Mitzvah. The photographer (who was a friend of the family and not a professional) forgot to take the lens cap off the camera for all the inside pictures.

 

Ruth Reidbord, adult bat mitzvah

As we prepare to observe the 100th anniversary of a woman becoming a Bat Mitzvah and as Temple Sinai is preparing to note this occasion with a special Shabbat Minyan service, I would like to offer my experience in becoming a Bat Mitzvah at the age of 64.

I grew up in a small town in Armstrong County, too small to have a shul, but not too small to have a Religious School with a total of no more than 15 students at any time. This plus the influence of my parents, and particularly my mother, was the beginning of my introduction to Jewish education. While I had an excellent education as part of the Southwestern District of Pennsylvania Jewish Religious Schools, which is documented in my essay in a book edited by Rabbi Walter Jacob of Rodef Shalom, I was not able to have a Bat Mitzvah. Very early I read about some famous Jewish women, but the word “feminism” wasn’t used for a long time. I’ll skip to the late 1980’s when I became aware of the then UHAC’s creation of a summer adult education seminar called the Kallah. The administrative assistant was our own Barbara Shuman. There I met and studied with some of the most wonderful Jewish women who were great scholars. And they introduced me to the notion of a feminist reading of Jewish text. One great person was Tikvah Frymer Kensky, z’l. Another was Rabbi Rachel Adler. I kept thinking about what I could do and decided I wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah. But I wanted to be part of a Shabbat service, just the way boys had. And, by the way, in 1970, my daughter was part of the first class of young women to be permitted to have a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Emanuel. But no adult women had asked for this.

So I approached Rabbi Mark Mahler in the summer of 1994 and told him I would like to study to become a Bat Mitzvah. At that time I was president of what was then the Tri-State Region of the UAHC and had met a number of people who had encouraged me. I told Rabbi Mahler that I had a number of stipulations: I wanted to hire my own teacher, Alva Daffner, a member of Beth El, who prepared many young people for B’nai Mitzvah. I did not want to use the Siddur then in use by our congregation because it was not gender sensitive. There was a new Siddur just out and I offered to buy 100 copies of it. I did not want the Cantorial Soloist to participate. Rabbi Mahler was good with guitar, and I assured him I would learn to chant the music. Finally I told him that he could pick any Shabbat starting with late summer of 1995 and I would learn the Maftir and Haftarah for that parasha (that was the custom there). I would also lead the service. He graciously agreed. As it got closer to the time of my Bat Mitzvah, he was happy he had learned all the melodies (and I wanted as much Jeff Klepper as I could get) because the Cantorial soloist got sick and Rabbi Mahler acted in both capacities!

I invited my friends from around the region and from our Temple. We had over 75 people. And to the amazement of the Rabbi, everyone was participating. They weren’t sitting on their hands the way many people do at a Saturday morning Bar Mitzvah because they don’t know the service or the music. And the greatest surprise was when Rabbi Richard Address, then executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of the UAHC walked in with Barbara Shuman. I was (and am) very close to Richie and I had a hard time holding it together.

It was a glorious moment in my life which I shall never forget. I was surrounded by my husband, Marvin, my daughter, Suzanne, my son Todd and my son-in-law, Andy. No grandchildren yet.

[I am grateful that I have been able to continue at Temple Sinai, which we joined in 1998 when we moved to Squirrel Hill. I hope I can continue my active participation for several years to come.]

 

Cecilia Rothschild, adult bat mitzvah

My brother, David, is just a year+ older than me. (I don't recall my older brother's Bar Mitzvah at all. He's 4 years older.) When David had his, I mainly recall the big fuss made. My parents had the basement finished and we had a big party. I have no recollection of the service. I was a bit puzzled by all of this, and nothing was said to me about it.

I had gotten more involved in my Judaism when I lived in Alexandria, VA. I moved there not long after going to library school at UCLA. I think it was around 1985. I went to Bet Mishpachah in D.C., as well as to Agudas Achim in northern Virginia. I studied Hebrew. I was asked to chant a prayer by the Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, a part-time rabbi at Bet Mish for High Holy Days. I loved it and she then asked if I wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah. Really? She thought I was ready. I did want to do it. I studied with her for close to a year. On April 26, 2003, I actually had it. I led the service with the Rabbi and chanted all the aliyot for Acharei Mot. That Friday night I had a party for the out-of-town guest, and Saturday an after-service lunch for all the congregation, and then a friend of mine had a party at night in my honor. It was a great success, and my friend was delighted. Quite a weekend. I was surprised how much of my family came from all over. A definite highlight of my life.

 

Aya Betensky, non-bat mitzvah

My family was Conservative, and like many girls in the late 1950s I didn’t have a bat mitzvah ceremony. I didn’t go to Hebrew or Sunday school at all, though we did go to shul. I was born in Israel, and after we moved to DC when I was eight, my parents taught me Hebrew, Tanach, and Jewish history at home.

I always liked congregational singing and the mournful eastern European flavor of much liturgical music. Years later, the Torah reader at our Conservative shul in New Jersey offered an adult cantillation class, and I thought it might be fun. Everyone in the class learned to chant both Torah and Haftarah, and for our “graduation” we were expected to chant at services. But our very conservative rabbi didn’t allow women on the bimah. So while the men in the class got to chant Torah from the bimah during the (more important) Shabbat morning service, my only option was to chant Haftarah during a Friday evening service, when it was merely optional. I enjoyed chanting my favorite set of melodies, but it just wasn’t the same. This experience and others led us to switch to a Reform temple. That’s where I started singing in the choir, and it slowly began to dawn on me that singing was my way to prayer.

We moved to Pittsburgh in 1993 and joined Temple Sinai, partly for the Saturday morning minyan, which was in its early years. When minyan members decided, with Rabbi Gibson’s help, to lead our own Torah services, I became one of the regular Torah readers. Later still, Rabbi Gorban encouraged me to join an adult b’nei mitzvah class. She thought I could gain something from it that Torah reading didn’t give me. I didn’t see the point. Then Cantor Berman encouraged adults and post-b’nei mitzvah kids to learn High Holiday trope. It was hard, but several of us chanted passages during the High Holidays. It was like learning a new language, and I found it beautiful and satisfying.

This year we learned that the centennial of the first bat mitzvah in America was coming up and started planning a minyan service in its honor. Suddenly, finally, I realized that this could be meaningful for me too. So now I want to do it, and I hope other women, whatever their paths so far, will join me!


Florence Chapman, non-bat mitzvah but Confirmation

Having a bat mitzvah ceremony, although possible in my liberal conservative congregation, was unusual. Few girls went to Hebrew school and fewer had a bat mitzvah celebration. Those who did led the Friday night service rather than that on Saturday morning one.

I attended Sunday school from kindergarten (maybe even preK) till the age of fifteen, when I was confirmed. Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who was the officiant at my confirmation, was Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s husband.

I did not know Rabbi Eisenstein well since he had been at Anshe Emet less than a year, but I do remember my confirmation with joy.

My participation in the service was to have an Aliyah, blessing the Torah both before and after a section reading. In 1955 this was an unusual task given to a female-but my congregation was at the forefront of including women as equals.

The most memorable part of my confirmation, other than the white dress that was purchased for the ceremony, was the inclusion of the cantata “What is Torah?” written by Judith Kaplan Eisenstein and the Rabbi. The lines I always remember are: “Torah is the land, the soil, Mother Earth, Eretz Yisroel” said in rhythm.


Elizabeth Gordon, non-bat mitzvah

I was born and raised in Rego Park, Queens, New York. It was a middle-class, heavily Jewish, although not religious, neighborhood. My family, which kept kosher, belonged to the Rego Park Jewish Center, a large Conservative shul. We primarily attended services on High Holidays. I was active in the synagogue as a child, faithfully attending Sunday and then, Hebrew school, which met five days a week. I was a member of the Hebrew school choir and regularly attended Junior Congregation Saturday mornings.

A key source of my Jewish education was the camps I attended for eight weeks every summer, notably Cejwin Camps for four years starting at age ten. According to Wikipedia, Cejwin, founded in 1919 under a different name, “was one of the first Jewish cultural camps in the United States. Cejwin's Jewish practice was influenced by the Reconstructionist outlooks of Rabbis Mordecai Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein, both of whom frequently visited the camp.” At Cejwin I participated in Saturday morning services. I remember being called to the Torah, learning and becoming comfortable with the appropriate blessings. I recently found that the camp, which closed in 1992, still has an active alumni Facebook page.

It never crossed anyone’s mind, including mine, that I should have a bat mitzvah. By the appropriate age I had quit Hebrew school; it was badly taught with English bible stories years below my reading level and Hebrew study that consisted largely of phonetic memorization of songs and prayers. The entire b’nai mitzvah experience was off my radar - no girls I knew had a bat mitzvah and I didn’t attend any bar mitzvahs, not even my brother’s as he was 14 years older than I. I have never missed having this ceremony, having expressed my connection to Judaism in other ways, including living in Jerusalem for nine years and speaking Hebrew.

The closest I’ve come to the bat mitzvah experience, perhaps, is chanting part of my oldest grandson’s Torah portion seven years ago. I worked hard at it, learning to chant from a recorded version, and took pride in taking my place on the bima. At the time, I joked that Ariel’s bar mitzvah was also my bat mitzvah, marking as it did my first time reading Torah. Over the years, I have enjoyed being called to the Torah, exploiting my proximity to the scroll by peering over the reader’s shoulder and, as much as possible, following along in the text.

 

Esther Nathanson, non-bat mitzvah

My parents left Rodef Shalom to join Temple Sinai when I was 10, because they wanted my brother to have a Bar Mitzvah and, at that time, Rodef Shalom did not offer that possibility. My brother had his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Sinai.

When I was growing up in the 1950’s, Temple Sinai did not offer girls the opportunity to have a Bat Mitzvah. Two of my friends had their B’not Mitzvah at Beth Shalom. I did not regret that such an option was not available to me. I did not feel cheated. In those days, so far as I knew, that was historically the way it was. I had not grown up with the expectation of having a Bat Mitzvah and I am generally an accepting kind of person. I did go to Sunday School and I got confirmed, and that was fine.

My mother, Sarah Mishelevich (z”l), considered preparing for a Bat Mitzvah in her later years when an adult Bat Mitzvah option was offered to women at Temple Sinai, but ultimately she did not pursue it. (Later in life, I also thought about that possibility, but I did not pursue it either.)

My mother, however, was always interested in studying the Torah. Rabbi Aaron Ilson encouraged her to learn a Torah portion in Hebrew and I believe that she was the second woman to read from a Torah scroll at Temple Sinai. (I think that Rabbi Ilson’s wife, Sylvia, was the first woman to have that honor.)

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782