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December 17, 2014 | 25th Kislev 5775

Bat Mitzvah

Galilee Diary #551, October 5, 2011
Marc Rosenstein

No thunder sounded. No lightening struck.
-Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, recalling her bat mitzvah, March 18, 1922 - the first bat mitzvah in North America at which a girl read from the Torah. She was the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism.

Shorashim was founded in the early 80s by a group of young couples with roots in NFTY, USY, Ramah, and Young Judea, with a few returning Israelis who had discovered liberal Judaism while living abroad.  By the time we arrived in 1990, it was taken for granted that egalitarianism in the synagogue extended to bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, and all the kids, regardless of gender, went through the same process and ceremony, centered on participation in the traditional Torah and Haftarah readings on a Shabbat morning.  Occasionally we had to deal with a visiting relative who would not accept an invitation to an aliyah to the Torah because of this egalitarian policy, but we generally found a solution (or not), without in any way questioning our policy and our tradition.  For many kids the event really did serve as an initiation into the synagogue community, and they continued their involvement through high school and even beyond, by helping conduct services or read Torah - especially, as it happened, girls.

A few facts before continuing:

a)  Shorashim is not a standard synagogue, as membership is automatic for anyone who lives in the community (a gated rural village of, today, about 80 families).  There are no dues, as expenses such as synagogue upkeep and utilities are simply part of the overall per-family tax levied on everyone who lives here.  There is no rabbi or other professional staff.  The kids learn Hebrew and Bible and Jewish history etc. in public school.  Synagogue life is run by a volunteer committee that sets policies and maintains a rotation list of liturgical assignments (leading services, sermons, Torah readings).

b) In Israel, outside of the small circles of the liberal movements, Orthodox boys have a traditional bar mitzvah; many non-religious families take their sons to the nearest Orthodox synagogue or to the Western Wall for a bar mitzvah ceremony, generally without any preparation (often just reciting the Torah blessings).  Most Orthodox girls have no observance of bat mitzvah; some families hold a festive meal and the girl and other family members deliver comments on the Torah portion.  Most non-religious girls (and many boys) have either no celebration, or just a family party with food and music and perhaps a skit or powerpoint about the child.

As Shorashim has grown, it has taken in a number of Israeli families who are non-religious and/or traditional in their background, for whom the idea of a girl being called to the Torah feels foreign and unnatural.  And they have begun to assert themselves, by simply holding bat mitzvah celebrations like in "the outside world."  Just last week, we were invited to a bat mitzvah held on a Thursday night, a lavish (by our standards) dinner, with professional entertainment, and a speech by the girl consisting of thank-yous.  No mention of or connection to the synagogue.

On the one hand, if we believe in pluralism, then people should be able to observe their life cycle events as they wish.  On the other hand, in this new reality, families feel the pull of such secular ceremonies as they experience them, creating a certain amount of social pressure not to make the effort to prepare for a traditional bat mitzvah.  Indeed, what we are experiencing is a move backward, from an egalitarian community to one in which girls are not expected to play an equal role with boys in the synagogue - and this, not because of Orthodox pressure, but because of that weird cultural amalgam of secular lifestyle with nostalgia for "Tradition."  The synagogue committee is frustrated but somewhat powerless, as what we thought was the culture of the community is being threatened by pre-modern ideas in post-modern garb.

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