On Saturday morning, March 18, 1922, a twelve-year old named Judith Kaplan stepped up to the bimah of her father's synagogue and did something radical. She later admitted, "It shocked a lot of people, including my own grandparents and aunts and uncles." Her father, a Conservative rabbi named Mordecai Kaplan (who later started the Reconstructionist branch of Judaism), beamed with joy.
For several hundred years, the teenage ritual of studying enough Jewish wisdom in order to consciously accept the responsibility of becoming a Jewish adult and being a key part of the weekly prayer service was reserved for men. Even after the first bat mitzvah of young Judith Kaplan, it took more than 50 additional years before human beings with XX chromosomes could fully lead Shabbat services as ordained rabbis (the first ordained woman rabbi was Sally Priesand at a Reform temple in Jackson, Michigan in 1972).
In fact, the vast majority of bat mitzvah ceremonies until the 1970's were either on Friday nights without reading directly from the actual Torah, or they were held on Saturday mornings with a young woman bat mitzvah celebrant reading (like Judith Kaplan had done) from a printed copy of the text rather than from the sacred ancient scroll.
As a result, most Jewish women alive today in 2009 either didn't have a bat mitzvah as a teenager or they had a watered down version that was "different" in important ways from what the young men were encouraged to do for gaining full entry into the historic community of responsible Jewish adults.
According to Sasha Firman, an ESL (English as a Second Language) educator in Los Angeles, "For many years I'd thought the bat mitzvah I had as a teenager was the real thing. But I later discovered it was held on a Friday night for specific reasons and I was only allowed to recite a particular prayer in the early half of the service because women at that time in my synagogue were still not allowed to interact with the sacred Torah scroll."
But now in the 21st century there are new possibilities. At Ahavat Torah Congregation in Brentwood, there was a packed house of friends, family, congregants, and musicians on a recent Saturday morning. Two more adult women, Sasha Firman and Rita Reuben, stepped forward to culminate their studies and lead the congregation in a bat mitzvah ceremony of Torah chantings, prayers, teachings, and personal insights on what it means today to become a spiritually-morally-conscious adult. Even though the congregation is only six years old, there have been a number of emotionally-inspiring adult bat mitzvah ceremonies every year since 2005 led by Rabbi Miriam Hamrell.
THE DEEPER REASONS WHY
Exactly why does a person in his or her 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, or 70's (with a busy life and lots of responsibilities) decide to spend a significant number of months preparing for this sacred ritual of becoming an adult bar or bat mitzvah?
For Kimberly Haynes, a professional singer who lives in the San Fernando Valley, "As soon as I heard a few years ago that Rabbi Miriam was conducting a class for adult bar and bat mitzvah students, I wanted to say yes. I had just given birth to my son Joshua and I knew he would one day have a bar mitzvah, so I wanted to be able to teach him and inspire him at something I had also done personally. I needed to know what it was all about to stand in front of the congregation and say I'm ready to be part of this great tradition of being a conscious Jew who can take a portion of the Torah, turn it around from various viewpoints, and understand how it applies to our daily lives. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with Rabbi Miriam and the other bat mitzvah students in my group, as the Rabbi taught us how to look deeply into a Torah portion that didn't make much sense at first. But she showed us how to find the nugget of wisdom, the guidance that we can apply to our daily lives. I felt so grateful to be a part of such a beautiful tradition."
According to Estelle Fisher, a psychotherapist in West Los Angeles, "Prior to my bat mitzvah I'd been deepening my spiritual experience through my practice of yoga and both Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Though I was still fully immersed in the culture of Jewish practice, my spiritual needs seemed more deeply addressed through these Eastern practices. But when Rabbi Miriam announced the second adult b'nai mitzvah class, I started thinking about how this ritual and the preparatory study could be significant for helping me to deepen and strengthen my spiritual roots as a Jew. Then when I found out Rabbi Miriam would be taking a group to Israel in the spring of 2008, I proposed the idea to her of doing my bat mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I saw the wheels turning in her head as to how to make it happen. And several months later I was there at the site that would bind me in time to my ancestors...just the thought of it makes me weep."
Rita Reuben, a social worker, mother and grandmother who lives in the mid-Wilshire district, describes how, "I felt as a girl I got short-changed. It had percolated for a long time--my secret desire to want to do a bat mitzvah. But I was a six-time Hebrew school dropout because it had always been too difficult for me to learn a new language as an adult. Yet when I studied with Rena Jaffe from our congregation and with Rabbi Miriam, I was finally able to learn enough Hebrew to understand some of the deeper meanings of many of the prayers, and to get comfortable with the beautiful trope singing of the Torah portion. In fact, I grew to love the Torah chanting--not only because of the beautiful melodies but also from the mystical feeling of reading from the actual Torah."
Arva Rose, an actress and therapist, comments, "I got interested in an adult bat mitzvah when my goddaughter and her mother, my best friend, intimated that they might do it. I'm not sure exactly why, but when I knew it was there, laid out, made available, I trusted that Rabbi Miriam would be kind and helpful and uncritical. So I decided to say yes."
Gloria Orenstein, a professor of comparative literature at USC, recalls, "What I remember from my earlier years is that my brother was given the blessing 'to go forth in life' and I was not. For many years afterward, any time I wanted to engage in some new pursuit, I kind of ran a survey of everyone I knew, seeing whether they thought it was ok for me to do this new thing. I never felt I had the go-ahead to do these things (take risks, go to grad school, get a PhD, etc.) I knew intellectually I didn't need everyone's permission, but I also felt a bit paralyzed. So when I became an adult bat mitzvah, I wanted to speak all that to God. And I discovered by studying for my bat mitzvah, that I am finally able to 'go forth' with a full blessing and to feel so grateful for all that my Jewish background has taught me on how to live in this world."
Ellen DuBois, a history professor at UCLA, explains, "I combined the bat mitzvah with a lavish sixtieth birthday party and it was quite meaningful that my relatives from Seattle, Tucson, Boston, Atlanta and Baltimore all came here to be part of it, since I'm usually traveling to where they are for big events. But what I remember most about my bat mitzvah is that I had a mammoth fight with my sister the night before the ceremony. Even the next morning, I was still struggling with why it happened and what it meant. Then it came to me the morning of the bat mitzvah that my drash about wanting to 'see God's face' was very theoretical and not very personal. Suddenly I decided to end my drash by talking about how we can't see God's 'face' but--thinking about my sister--we can struggle to see God in the faces of other human beings. My point (and I don't think I said it exactly) was that I had lost the image of God in my sister's face and I needed to get back to it."
FEELING FULLY EMBRACED
According to scholars who have studied this coming-of-age ceremony that goes back to the Middle Ages, at its core a bar mitzvah or a bat mitzvah is NOT about reading perfectly, chanting perfectly, speaking perfectly, or "performing." Rather, most experts say it's about being welcomed and fully embraced into the community of adult Jewish seekers of a moral compass for living a meaningful life. When a teenager (or a mid-life individual) stands up to help lead the congregation in prayer or Torah study, he or she is saying implicitly, "I belong. I'm part of this ancient and modern struggle to understand life's challenges through the ever-expanding wisdom of my tradition."
As Rita Reuben explains, "I had imagined I would be up there on the bimah singing the ancient words and melodies, trying to do it 'right.' But at my bat mitzvah a few weeks ago, I felt as if the ancient words and melodies were singing me. It's hard to describe, but it was an other-worldly feeling of being at one with the beautiful melodies and the words of the Torah. I also felt a deep connection with my father and the whole history of the Jewish people--those who were in the congregation, plus those who came before us and those who will follow us, including my grandchildren."
Kimberly Haynes recalls from her adult bat mitzvah three years ago, "I was nervous that day about going up to the front to read from the ancient Torah and giving a speech. But looking out at the sea of people--there were so many loving faces and so much good feeling in the sanctuary. It was like this enormous embrace from all the people there in the room. To receive all that love and support, I feel as if everyone was so proud of us bat mitzvah celebrants for who we truly are as individuals. And that's been a rare feeling in my life."
Please feel free to forward or give this article to anyone who might find it inspiring or useful in their own spiritual journey.
Or if you are interested in possibly having an adult bar or bat mitzvah, you are welcome to talk with Rabbi Miriam Hamrell in person.
Or if you would like additional information about the participatory prayer services, classes, and social action programs of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood, log onto http://www.ahavattorahcongregation.org/ or visit http://www.creatingsacredcommunity.blogspot.com/.