Orthodox girls are redefining coming-of-age ceremonies

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Traditionally, Orthodox girls wanting a bat mitzvah have had intimate affairs with close family and friends, complete with candlelightings and blessings.

Unlike the Reform and Conservative movements, which have embraced and formalized the bat mitzvah in the synagogue, Orthodox shuls and schools tend to take a more-varied, low-key approach.

And while many Orthodox girls still have private, coming-of-age rituals, others are opting for more-public and creative ceremonies, perhaps closer aligned to a bar mitzvah. Most choose to study extensively with parents, teachers or rebbetzins, and many seek out chesed projects — acts of loving-kindness — to help those less fortunate.

Indeed, while some Orthodox rabbis might forbid a girl from having a synagogue-based event — celebrating instead with a modest meal, a blessing or wearing nicer clothes — this does not seem to be the case in the Bay Area. In Berkeley, for one, many Orthodox girls are encouraged to give a public address that culminates their years of study.

Certainly, the Bay Area lends itself to the more liberal side of Orthodox Judaism.

U.C. Santa Cruz student Dorit Resnikoff, for example, does not recall her Orthodox bat mitzvah at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel being out of the ordinary. “There were two other Orthodox girls at our synagogue, and all of us had bat mitzvahs,” says the 20-year-old. “We didn’t say to each other, ‘Oh, this is such a big step.'”

However, “We did have to come up with ways of doing things differently, and our ceremonies were more creative.

“It’s really common for girls to have a women’s Torah service, but I wanted my dad and brother to be there, so I did a Friday night women’s service and afterwards, I read to the whole congregation.”

Resnikoff’s sister, Liat, 27, also became a bat mitzvah. Before that, back in 1973, Mimi Epstein was the first Orthodox girl to become a bat mitzvah at Beth Israel.

“These days, in Berkeley, all the girls are expected to have bat mitzvahs,” Resnikoff adds.

Still, the structure of a girl’s bat mitzvah depends greatly on which circle of the Orthodox community she’s in.

At Beth Israel, “Each girl had some kind of learning component in her bat mitzvah, meaning that she spent serious time invested in learning about a topic,” says Irene Resnikoff, Dorit’s and Liat’s mother. She is a teacher at Beth Israel and education director at the Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Rabbi Judah Dardik of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland agrees that it’s common in the Bay Area for Orthodox girls to have more-scholarly and public b’not mitzvah.

“Due to demographics, we’ve had a dearth of bat mitzvahs in the past two and a half years,” Dardik says. “But in the next 36 months, there are a lot coming up. I’ve been meeting with families one-on-one, to help the girls design a ceremony that’s truly reflective of their coming of age. For some, it’s about a certain study. For others, it’s about finding something in their lives to really make their own.”

Erica Brown, a former scholar-in-residence for the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, is also an Orthodox advocate for more public and formal b’not mitzvah in her community. In an essay for www.myjewishlearning.com called “Orthodox Judaism grapples with bat mitzvah,” Brown writes: “Failure to address and welcome each child, boy or girl, into the adult world commandments and community can convey a powerful message in its silence: as an individual, you are not welcome here.”

Her daughter had a public bat mitzvah, which Brown described as “part of a natural and obvious course of active Jewish living.” She would like Orthodox rabbis to “take more of a proactive role in assigning meaning and legitimate customs to the bat mitzvah.”

Still, there are some Bay Area Orthodox families who’ve continued the tradition of the private bat mitzvah, without a speech or big ceremony.

Hinda Langer, director of the Shalom School in San Francisco and wife of Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of SF, is the mother of three daughters and two sons who have all had b’nai mitzvah. “In Orthodox community, a bar or bat mitzvah is not a big change in the fabric of their lives,” Langer says. “It’s really a continuation” of their dedication.

Two of Langer’s daughters — Chaya, 21, and Nechama, 28, whom their mother describes as “shy” — had private parties at their home with family and friends, while the more outgoing Miriam, 20, gave a formal speech at a Chabad house with more than 75 people present. At Chaya’s bat mitzvah, which had a birthday party atmosphere, the girls played Shabbat games and Chaya gave a 10-minute talk to her friends. Nechama’s bat mitzvah included a costume party, cake decorating and a d’var Torah reading to her class.

On the other hand, the Langer sons’ b’nai mitzvah were “much more elaborate,” their mother explains. “It’s a given for the boys that they have a public ceremony because they have to be called up to the Torah. Both boys memorized Chassidic discourse in Yiddish, about tefillin.”

Still, Langer concedes that the bat mitzvah ceremony itself is not what is significant in the Orthodox community. Rather, it is “the reaffirmation of a life commitment.

“You have to realize that our kids are prepared in a totally different way than another community,” Langer says. “Our kids have been prepared since they were born. So, in that sense, I feel that it’s exactly the same for both boys and girls. The message is the same, even if the mitzvot are different.”

Lauren Greenberg, whose daughter, Eliana, who had a bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Israel two years ago, agrees. “There are really two options you can do. Orthodox girls have been having bat mitzvahs for a long time. Some girls focus on chanting and reading, while other girls focus more on studying.”

Greenberg says she modeled her daughter’s bat mitzvah on what Howard Zack, the former rabbi of Beth Jacob in Oakland, did with his three daughters. For months before her bat mitzvah, Eliana studied with Ilana Silverman-Fodirman, a teacher at San Francisco’s Jewish Community High School of the Bay, about Hoshana Rabbah, the festival commemorating the seventh day of Tabernacles. At home, Eliana wrote a speech and illustrated handouts for the 120 invited guests.

“I think my bat mitzvah was different from my friends’,” Eliana says. “I was the only one who did it during the night, on a Thursday, and my party was under the sukkah at my grandmother’s house.”

The question, says Lauren Greenberg, is: “Do you try to make it more like a boy’s or try to do something totally different? I embrace the idea of trying to do something totally different. There’s the standard thing the boy does, but for a bat mitzvah, it is very diverse and unique.”

So, what has caused the shift? More Orthodox girls are wanting to be heard.

“In Orthodox Judaism, there is no public ritual marking the bat mitzvah,” writes Tova Mirvis, author of “Ladies’ Auxiliary,” a novel about the close-knit, carefully structured world of the Orthodox community in Memphis, Tenn. “Girls come of age in private, into a role that is private. Orthodox women do not publicly read from the Torah and do not lead prayers in synagogue.”

Mirvis, whose own Orthodox family agreed to let her have a bat mitzvah 16 years ago, expressed the importance of this ceremony in an essay she wrote for www.beliefnet.com, titled “A bat mitzvah shapes a girl into the woman she’ll become.”

Mirvis recalls that although she was very excited to give a speech on lighting Sabbath candles, “My bat mitzvah was not given the same attention as my brother’s bar mitzvah.”

Her brother’s decisions centered around which parts of the service he would lead and which male members would participate with him, while Mirvis focused on party planning.

“Looking back, I feel that the event lacked substance,” she says. “If the community one enters is a religious one, where ritual and prayer take center stage, then there ought to be some ritual ceremony to mark this arrival.”

Mirvis also points out that the planning of a girl’s Orthodox bat mitzvah ceremony largely depends on her community. “In some circles within Orthodox Judaism, bat mitzvahs are developing a public ritual component. This is the result of the sometimes seamless, sometimes contradictory movement of Orthodox Judaism.”


by Rachel Sarah