How do we make our girls’ batmitzvahs meaningful?
It is a question that our family and many of our friends are grappling with, as our daughters turn 12.
For the ritual element, as members of an Orthodox synagogue, our options are limited. Our daughters can give a dvar Torah from the pulpit, probably for the only time in their lives. This is often moving and a great improvement on the options available 20 years ago (nothing) but still feels like a pale imitation of the boys’ ritual.
Some Orthodox girls now leyn or get an aliyah at a Partnership Minyan or women’s service, while others attend mother-and-daughter learning sessions or Israel trips but this is still a minority.
As for the party, there is a lot of pressure to put on an extravagant “do”. For many families, simply resisting this pressure and organising a more modest event is meaningful in and of itself.
Ninety-five years after the first public batmitzvah ceremony took place in New York, we’re still figuring how to mark this Jewish coming-of-age.
I don’t suggest we abandon any of the elements above. More ritual, more learning, more family time and appropriate celebrations are all good.
But there is one element we should add to the mix, which will turn the batmitzvah from a minor, sometimes superficial celebration into a life-changing event for our girls.
When I was batmitzvah in Israel, some 30 years ago, our school ran a year-long batmitzvah programme, where we learned about our place in our family and our community.
We spent months preparing an investigation into our family roots. And every single week, the entire class went to volunteer at Yad Sarah, a national charity providing health and social services. My group’s job was to feed clean sheets that were used in care homes into an industrial ironing machine. It sounds tedious but the atmosphere was fun, and we felt very grown-up doing such responsible work.
The experience was so powerful that several of my classmates volunteered again for Yad Sarah when they had to perform their national service at the age of 18. And it ingrained in all of us, from a very early age, the responsibility to be public-minded, to help others in need and to volunteer for our communities.
Of course, times have changed in Israel, but something of that tradition lives on.
My Israeli niece Maayan, who will be batmitzvah in June, has decided to forego a party and presents, and instead has committed to raising $27,000 for three isolated communities in Nepal, which need clean water and sanitation. Working with IsraAID, an Israeli charity that provides disaster relief, she has just returned from a trip to Nepal to understand the communities she will be helping, and has come up with her own plan of fundraising events, which she will run this year.
If this seems like a tall order for an 11-year-old, perhaps we should give our children more credit for what they can achieve. Too often, in this age of “safe spaces” and helicopter parenting, we try to shield our children from the big wide world for as long as possible and as a result, we don’t challenge or stretch them enough.
But becoming batmitzvah is ostensibly about taking on adult responsibilities and taking on a more active role in Jewish community life. It is not too early to learn about poverty or people in need, not too early to volunteer their time for the good of others and not too early for them to take on a big challenge.
They can do it. They will become better people for it. And they will become more invested in our communal organisations and communal life as a result, too.
Many of our Jewish charities offer bnei mitzvah the opportunity to volunteer, and this is a growing trend. Jewish Care, for example, is just launching a stand-alone programme for girls and boys in years 7 and 8, where they can learn about the UK’s largest Jewish charity, volunteer in its centres and fundraise.
We should encourage our youngsters to make volunteering a standard, basic part of their bat- or bar-mitzvah year.
For many kids, across the denominations, a synagogue ceremony is a chore to get through rather than an inspiration. One can argue that we must improve their experience, but at the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful – and meaningful – to turn their batmitzvah year into a year of giving and charity.