On the evening of Friday, June 5, 1959, 13-yearold Roberta Hirshfield celebrated her bat mitzvah at the Astoria Center of Israel in Queens, New York.
A bat mitzvah still was a relatively rare occurrence. Roberta, however, had attended Hebrew school and weekly Shabbat services for many years, so it seemed a logical progression. For her bat mitzvah, she and another girl in her Hebrew school class shared the berakhot (blessings) for the haftarah and then the haftarah itself. Roberta’s partner led Aleinu and Roberta led Yigdal.
The families then went on to the social hall, where the guests were treated to a catered oneg Shabbat. The next morning, of course, the members of the Astoria Center of Israel heard a repeat of the haftarah that Roberta chanted the night before – but this second reading was the one that counted as the synagogue’s official haftarah recitation.
Nevertheless young Roberta was thrilled with this milestone. It did not occur to her at the time to compare her own accomplishment to that of her brother Stuart, who was 4 1/2 years older. Stuart’s bar mitzvah was marked by his aliyah to the Torah on Shabbat morning and celebrated with a splendid kiddush, and again that night with an even more opulent party, complete with a live band and a multicourse sit-down meal.
Also unlike Stuart’s religious rite of passage, there was no hefty photo album, just a few snapshots of a proud young girl in a fancy white dress. But most significant of all, Roberta never again was called upon by the Astoria Center of Israel to demonstrate those skills that she so ardently had acquired over more than 8 years of Hebrew school.
It was now 50 years later. Roberta Hirshfield Schreiber – wife, mother, and grandmother – had watched as several generations of women participated in the no longer exceptional bat mitzvah ceremony when girls are called to the Torah by their Hebrew names on Shabbat morning, wearing their own tallitot. They recite the blessings, read from the Torah, and lead services, full and equal participants in the congregation’s ritual life. It was time, Roberta decided, that she too should become an active participant rather than a mere spectator.
After consultation with Rabbi Gary Parras of Temple Israel in Orlando, Florida, where she has lived for many years, Roberta again honed her Hebrew reading skills, this time to include the Torah trope. On a Shabbat morning in June, close to her original bat mitzvah date, Roberta Schreiber was called to the Torah by her Hebrew name, Raza Tova bat Zev veChannah. She recited the blessing, read from the Torah, and later made kiddush with the kiddush cup that was presented to her at her first bat mitzvah. This time Roberta wore a tallit, beautifully decorated with images of the matriarchs. The following day she invited her guests to a party, complete with a live band and a multicourse sit-down meal.
But more significantly, Roberta subsequently became a regular in the rotation of the Yad Squad at Temple Israel, the synagogue’s cadre of lay Torah and haftarah readers.
In her dvar Torah Roberta spoke about Samson’s mother, the subject of her haftarah, who had no identity of her own beyond being Manoach’s wife and her son’s mother. Roberta spoke about her own journey from her first to her second bat mitzvah as a spiritual quest, and as a reflection of women’s progress.
Roberta’s two bat mitzvah celebrations are more than just a human interest story. Rather, they give a face to the trajectory of modern Jewish feminism over the past 50 years.
This year, 2012, the bat mitzvah celebration is the topic of much discussion. This March marked the 90th anniversary of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, the first one celebrated in the United States. It was a momentous event – extraordinary really – and no doubt partially attributable to the fact that Judith was the musically gifted and Hebraically knowledgeable daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. But despite Kaplan’s progressive vision, which profoundly influenced Conservative Judaism, bat mitzvah celebrations remained relatively rare until after the Second World War.
By the 1960s, the Friday night bat mitzvah had become a regular rite of passage in most Conservative synagogues. Like the bar mitzvah, the bat mitzvah served as a public coming of age. But like the 1959 bat mitzvah of Roberta Hirshfield, the ceremony was a construct. Except for leading a few permissible prayers, non-liturgical readings often were picked because they were about women (Deborah, Ruth and Hannah were very popular) or were taken from the week’s haftarah. Unfortunately, a young girl’s bat mitzvah generally marked the end of her inclusion in the religious life of the synagogue, not the beginning.
Once the bat mitzvah became established, other issues arose. What about the status of a girl after celebrating her bat mitzvah? Was this to be a one-time event, where she acquired skills that would never be used again? While formal approval to extend aliyot to women came in 1955 in a minority opinion from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, most congregations followed the majority opinion, which did not sanction the practice.
It was not until the early 1970s, with the grassroots pressure from women for full parity in religious ritual and then the 1973 CJLS takkanah (rabbinic enactment) allowing women to be counted in the minyan, that the pace of egalitarianism accelerated. In short order the bat mitzvah was integrated into the Shabbat morning service and became the equivalent of the bar mitzvah. The process, beginning with Judith Kaplan in 1922, had reached its logical manifestation by becoming commonplace.
But this change did not affect only young women. As bnot mitzvah became equal partners in the religious lives of their congregations, their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers began to seek entrée as well. With egalitarianism the rule rather than the exception, women – many of whom had grown up with little or no Jewish education – embarked upon ambitious programs of acquiring Hebrew literacy and studying classical Jewish texts. Women’s entry into what was once the exclusive domain of men led to the development of new Jewish women’s rituals, including the adult bat mitzvah.
Over the past several decades, hundreds of synagogues across North America have offered a wide variety of adult bat mitzvah classes and learning opportunities for women. The benefits accrue not only to the women who derive personal satisfaction from the acquisition of the skills required to daven and read Torah, but to congregational life as well. As more and more congregations rely on laity to read Torah and lead services, the inclusion of women has increased the ranks of learned and actively engaged communities.
For nearly a century, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism has been devoted to providing a wide variety of educational initiatives to its members. Mirroring developments in synagogues, thousands of Women’s League members have participated in adult bat mitzvah programs. The phenomenon was so popular and the demand so great that in 2002 Women’s League commissioned a bat mitzvah curriculum, Etz Hayim He, for Conservative congregations. Educators have hailed the two-year course of study, written by Dr. Lisa Grant, who received her PhD from the Jewish Theological Seminary, as a model of adult learning. In addition, starting in the early 1990s Women’s League created Kolot Bik’dushah, a society of qualified Torah readers and prayer leaders. To date, nearly a thousand women and post-bat mitzvah girls (Banot Bik’dushah) have been admitted to the ranks of this elite society.
When a Jewish child is born, whether male or female, the parents entreat the Creator that they might raise him or her to “a life of Torah, chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good behavior/good deeds).” It wasn’t so long ago – barely a generation – that the opportunity for women to be raised to a life of Torah was pragmatic and bound to domestic obligations – keeping a kosher home, raising Jewish children, and observing private mitzvot. Today a woman’s life of Torah can include all areas of Jewish living, both private and public – and the bat mitzvah has become, finally, a celebration of beginning.