After Joelle finished leading Kabbalat Shabbat and delivering a thoughtful dvar Torah from the bimah as a bat mitzvah, her mother, Samantha Mintz Vineberg, spoke, recalling her own bat mitzvah.
“The gift of my own personal bat mitzvah that my parents gave me sent me a strong, clear and direct message… that as a woman, I was an important and valued member of the Jewish community.”
She explained that as her own daughter had approached bat mitzvah age, she had no doubts in her mind that Joelle would not celebrate in a group setting, but on her own bat mitzvah day. “I felt that it would be important for Joelle to be recognized in her own right and have a formal service celebrating her reaching the age where she would be responsible for her own mitzvot [commandments], the same way we do for sons,” she said.
I first encountered the concept of a group bat mitzvah when I moved to Montreal from the United States two years ago. I had never seen one before, and I could not understand the idea. How can a girl celebrate her personal coming of age with others whose birthdays are months before or after her own? How significant a Jewish component could she perform when there were 10 other girls celebrating alongside her? And what could be the Jewish ritual context on a random Wednesday night? My curiosity soon turned to frustration and disbelief: if this milestone, which is meant to represent an individual girl’s entry into the responsibilities of Judaism, is celebrated en masse, then we are sending our girls the wrong message. Besides, would you ever imagine a group bar mitzvah for boys?
It is worth recalling what lies at the core of bar and bat mitzvah. Technically speaking, girls and boys become bat and bar mitzvah on their 12th and 13th birthdays respectively. Having arrived at the age when they are responsible for keeping the mitzvot of the Torah, they are treated as full Jewish adults according to Jewish law.
Over the generations, it became customary for a boy to mark his entry into the age of mitzvot by performing a public Jewish ritual that he could not have performed as a Jewish minor. This usually has been an aliyah to the Torah, whereby the boy recites the blessings over the Torah scroll, recognizing his new state of commandedness to perform mitzvot.
Bar mitzvah parties soon accompanied these rituals. And why not? What better way to mark an exciting Jewish milestone than with song and dance, food and a l’chaim?!
For a young man to mark a bar mitzvah, he will perform a Jewish ritual as a full member of the adult community. There’s no reason a bat mitzvah shouldn’t be marked in the same way. In our synagogue, which strictly follows Orthodox Halachah, men and women have different obligations in mitzvot, and therefore different ritual roles. But this still leaves plenty of room for a bat mitzvah girl to powerfully step into Jewish adulthood by performing a public ritual within halachically acceptable boundaries.
A girl might lead Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday night, which consists of psalms and Lecha Dodi, all of which may halachically be led by a woman. Or, she might lead a women’s tfillah on Thursday morning with her female friends and relatives, leading the prayers and chanting from the Torah scroll. We recently had a girl chant Megillat Esther on Purim morning to mark her bat mitzvah. Each of these rituals is accompanied by a dvar Torah, where the girl shares her understanding of Torah, which she has studied in preparation for the day. She thus celebrates her entry into the adult Jewish community in a ritually significant way.
This is not about being feminist, or about treating the girls like the boys. This is about sending a clear message to our daughters and granddaughters that they matter as individuals. I recently attended a bat mitzvah in a very religious Orthodox community, where girls do not participate ritually in the ways described above. However, this bat mitzvah was exactly what I hoped for. As the girl and her friends braided challah, she recited the blessing over the mitzvah of challah for the first time as a Jewish adult. As she uttered the words, one could feel the excitement of her being able to recite this brachah as a full participant in Jewish life.
There are good reasons for a group bat mitzvah. It provides the girls with a peer experience and a community with whom they celebrate their important year. However, a girl celebrating an individual bat mitzvah can still take part in group programming.
For several years, I taught a mother-daughter bat mitzvah class, a program created by MaTaN in Israel, in which pairs of moms and daughters shared in a weekly study experience. Most of the girls later used what they learned in speaking at their individual bat mitzvah celebrations. At the Shaar, we also offer a group experience for both our bar and bat mitzvah students, to foster that sense of community and commitment. However, each child also celebrates the religious milestone on his or her own day.
Let’s not deny another important attraction of the group bat mitzvah: it alleviates the extravagant cost of an individual party. I agree that bar and bat Mitzvah parties sometimes get out of hand. I would love to see several bat mitzvah girls, all of whom have their own individual bat mitzvah celebrations, come together for a great party with their friends and close relatives. This way, the girls get to mark their Jewish commitment as individuals, and then party as a group!
Many have argued that a group bat mitzvah option is especially important for the families who would not otherwise mark bat mitzvah. The fear is that if we eliminate the group option, many girls will have no bat mitzvah at all. I disagree. Without a group, families will find their own ways to celebrate this milestone, and over time, this will develop a spectrum of options for girls to choose from, to find their own voice and discover what this personal milestone means to each of them.
If we don’t celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs as individual Jews, then how can we expect our children to choose to live Jewishly as they grow into adulthood? At the very least, we owe them their own Jewish identity.
Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold is the director of education and spiritual enrichment at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. To learn about Bat Mitzvah options at the Shaar, join Maharat Rachel, together with Rabbi Adam Scheier and Maharat Abby Brown Scheier, at the “Raising the Bar on Bat Mitzvah” information session on Tuesday, April 28 at 8:00PM. For details and location information, email [email protected].