Inspiring the girls of today

Since the day in 1922 when Judith Kaplan — whose father was Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism — stood at a “respectful distance” from the bimah and recited the traditional aliyah blessings, the coming-of-age ceremony for girls has enriched Jewish life.

Although Judith Kaplan died recently, the tradition she began is alive and growing. Barbara Goldin’s book “Bat Mitzvah” is a collection of inspiring essays and interviews celebrating Jewish women through the centuries: from matriarchs to pioneers to contemporary b’nai mitzvah.

In this beautifully written book, the seasoned Northampton, Mass., author traces the lineage of strong, courageous Jews, encouraging young readers to draw strength and inspiration from their foremothers.

“While you stand before the congregation and chant the Hebrew blessings or read your speech, or while you sit in one of the front rows watching your friends…[think of] the Deborahs and Esthers, the Rebecca Gratzes, the Rebekah Kohuts and the Judith Kaplans…They would certainly be amazed and gratified to see what girls and women are doing today.”

Goldin feels there is a dearth of Jewish literature specifically for girls or women, even written by women. With this work she hopes to fill a void.

“I wanted to focus on women,” Goldin said. “I felt it was important, in order to inspire girls, to let them know what came before them.

“I wanted the book to appeal to adults and teenagers, as well as to adult women going through bat mitzvah, even to non-Jewish girls and women who may be invited to a bat mitzvah ceremony.”

Goldin calls upon the experiences of women throughout history. She tells a touching story by Smith College Professor Martha Ackelsberg, whose study group Ezrat Nashim presented a series of demands to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1971. The demands included being counted in a minyan, being called for aliyahs and reading from the Torah.

The wife of a prestigious rabbi stood up and said, “Where have you been all these years?”

While on the surface it may appear that this book is geared to those who identify with non-traditional Jewish movements, Goldin’s message in fact goes much deeper than ritual participation. Her goal is to inspire Jewish girls and women to find their place in Jewish history, to draw upon the strength of the matriarchs in finding their own voice.

She quotes Rabbi Yosef Kanefsy, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, N.Y., who said: “There is a strong feeling of sisterhood at these events and the girl really enters not only the adult community, but the adult Jewish woman’s community.”

Even in Orthodox communities, various types of bat mitzvah ceremonies are becoming more popular, from simple parties to fully participatory women’s services, Goldin said.

“I wanted to incorporate different points of view,” said Goldin. “I wanted to let girls know that they have a place in history, no matter where they come from, regardless of their affiliation, they can transfer history into the now.”

The most charming aspect of this book is the inclusion of interviews with girls and women from the more rural western Massachusetts area about their bat mitzvah experiences. Katya Schapiro of Northampton began as an 11-year-old with no formal Jewish education and no knowledge of Hebrew.

“The idea of having a bat mitzvah got me much more interested in Judaism. But my interest ended up being for its own sake, not just for a bat mitzvah,” she said.

“I gained a community — the most important thing for me at the temple. And all the adults there love me because I drew my family closer to Judaism.”

Like Schapiro, Carrie Bernstein discovered the importance of a community and carved a place for herself through social action.

“My bat mitzvah helped me see how important community is to a group of people, especially to an oppressed group,” she said.

Carrie’s enthusiasm led to her to form a group called Students Organized to Advocate Peace, which raised money to sponsor two Croatian girls’ visit to Amherst in 1994.

“Many b’nai mitzvah express a strong desire to act to improve their world,” writes Goldin. “They’re worried about what kind of world they’re inheriting and growing up into.”

Whatever type of ceremony they choose or whatever inspires them in taking their place in the adult community, Goldin encourages each bat mitzvah to find who she is “in relation to the world, to the Jewish people, and in the context of her family.”