Enriching ritual: Program allows Orthodox girls to have a memorable bat mitzvah experience

A mother glances over her shoulder to find her 12-year-old daughter with her eyes closed, her hand reaching out for guidance.

Their fingers intertwine as they join other mothers who are leading their daughters around the room. The roles are then reversed, giving the young teens a chance to guide their parents.

A mirroring exercise follows, forcing the pairs to mimic each other’s movements and maintain eye contact.

When the mothers and daughters ask why they performed such tasks, they’re given an answer that stems from the Torah, but doesn’t include Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.

Today, it’s all about Esther.

“Esther goes through a transformation of discovering who she is,” said Oshra Koren, founder of the Israeli-based Matan Bat Mitzvah Program. “At first she is passive and dependent on Mordechai, but then she matures and discovers the forces inside her.”

Koren was recently in the Bay Area to train female educators from three local Orthodox synagogues so they can offer the Matan Bat Mitzvah Program.

Starting this year, the program — for Orthodox girls and their mothers — will be run at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, Berkeley’s Congregation Beth Israel and the San Francisco Congregation of Russian Jews for their bat mitzvah students.

Because there is no set-in-stone Orthodox bat mitzvah ritual, this program can — and does — serve as a bat mitzvah for its participants.

After all the studying and learning exercises are finished, the Matan program calls for daughters, mothers and grandmothers to gather for a celebration. Girls dress in white, place flowers in their hair and hold candles while their mothers recite special prayers. This, in effect, is the bat mitzvah.

In Orthodox Judaism, a bat mitzvah can take different forms. Often it is an intimate affair that has all the elements of a birthday celebration — plus a formal speech and blessings — held privately in one’s home or selected venue.

On the more liberal side of Orthodox Judaism, sometimes girls will have a women’s Torah service and speak in front of the congregation.

In any event, Koren said a bat mitzvah should be more than just a dress, an invitation and a party, which is why she feels her program and its ending ceremony are so enriching — especially since both mothers and daughters participate together.

“At the beginning, the daughters are totally dependent on their mothers, mirroring their behavior,” Koren said. “Then they start finding their own personality, their own place. The mothers have to let go and give their daughters space.”

Added Koren: “The girls are on the verge of becoming adolescents, which means the channels of communication aren’t always so great. Instead of fighting about cleaning their rooms, or discussing what they’re wearing, their homework or shopping, mothers and daughters are learning together and bonding. I believe that’s what the bat mitzvah is all about.”

The Matan Bat Mitzvah Program consists of 10 two-hour sessions employing the traditional chevruta method, pairing up mothers and daughters interested in studying Jewish subjects. Koren’s curriculum centers on women who have central roles in building the Jewish nation. Her goal: to “take the women who were on the side stage and put them in the spotlight.”

There’s Devorah, whom God appoints as a prophetess and judge; Bruriah, one of several women quoted as a sage in the Talmud; and Nechama Leibowitz, a noted Israeli biblical scholar and commentator.

The actual learning of text is accomplished through many media, including drama, arts, movement, song and guided imagery.

“I believe we learn with all of our senses,” Koren said. “Therefore, we must connect to Judaism with all of our being. The key is that each one of us were given gifts from God, and we have to realize them, actualize them and develop them.”

Koren is the current head of Matan HaSharon-Ra’anana, the Women’s Institute for Torah Study in Israel. Nearly 14 years ago, she was approached by a group of mothers and daughters asking for an academic and pluralistic program that opened up the study of Torah and Midrash to women. At the time, not many Orthodox girls were having bat mitzvahs; these days, that has changed.

More than 4,500 mothers and daughters from every sect of Judaism have participated in the program, which currently runs in more than 35 communities in the United States and Canada.

“In a way, mothers want to make sure their daughters have the experience they didn’t have,” Koren says. “It’s an empowering experience for the mothers, too, because they learn about Jewish female role models who perhaps they weren’t aware of.”

Parents repeatedly ask Koren when she’s going to create a similar program for boys. She tells them that, for now, her focus is on females.

“I hope that more and more girls take advantage of this unique experience of learning with their mothers about what it means to be Jewish women. It will enhance their connection to Judaism.”

 

The Matan Bat Mitzvah Program is for all sects of Judaism. It includes a training manual, a training session, consultation and other resources. More information: www.matan.org.il/english or Rebecca Linzer at batmitzvah@matan.org.il

Amanda Pazornik