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Modern Batmitzvahs: How girls are changing shul traditions

With women's participation in Orthodox services at the centre of controversy, the batmitzvah service is increasingly a matter of debate within families and communities

    B'not Chayil girls at Finchley Synagogue in 1989
    B'not Chayil girls at Finchley Synagogue in 1989

    When Laura and Alex Gordon recall their daughter Estie's batmitzvah, they kvell with enormous pride. As well as giving a d'var Torah in shul on Shabbat, the previous week, Estie leyned the entire megillah Ruth at home in front of family and friends.

    "In our community it's common practice for the batmitzvah girl to stand on the pulpit at the front of the shul after the Torah has been read and to address the 250 or so members of the community," says Laura. 'That in itself is an intense, beautiful experience but Estie had gone to a Jewish school and we knew she had the capability to do more. Boys have barmitzvahs where they engage in a process of long term studying and we wanted Estie to connect to her Judaism in a similarly meaningful way, on her own terms, and to have a comparable experience."

    With women's participation in Orthodox services at the centre of controversy, the batmitzvah service is increasingly a matter of debate within families and communities. The Chief Rabbi talked about "introducing opportunities for meaningful batmitzvah celebrations" in his statement on Partnership Minyanim last week, and in most shuls the days of group ceremonies for batches of identical B'not Chayil are well and truly over. What has taken their place?

    Estie Gordon's rabbi at Brondesbury Park Synagogue in north-west London,

    Rabbi Baruch Levin believes strongly that batmitzvah girls need to feel validated and valued within the framework of their community. Some girls, like Estie deliver a d'var Torah after the leyning. Others prefer to take part in a musical Havdalah service, or a candle-lighting ceremony ahead of the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night. "The ceremony has to be positive and aligned with the batmitzvah girl and her family."

    Ava Lewis's 2016 batmitzvah was very different
    Ava Lewis's 2016 batmitzvah was very different

    In other communities there is less choice and some resistance. I spoke to one United Synagogue rabbi who didn't want to be named He struggles with the current push towards women's participation. In his shul the girls give their d'var Torah at the end of the Shabbat service in the women's upstairs section of the Shul, separate and high above the men.

    'It's a very emotive subject, I know, but there is a conflict of modesty here, and as a rabbi, I don't think women belong on a pulpit at the front of the shul in the men's section,' he says. 'It's the thin edge of the wedge. If we allow this, what's next? It's a line I'm not yet willing to cross, even if a few of my congregants aren't happy."

    He's presided over fewer than six Shabbat batmitzvahs. Most girls from his community learn with a group with Chabad or at school, and hold a graduation ceremony elsewhere."It seems to work well."

    When Rebecca Lewis started planning her daughter Ava's batmitzvah she was far from happy with what her shul offered.

    As a member of Hale Synagogue in Manchester, she was told that batmitzvahs were usually held on Sundays, not Shabbat.

    "I was quite shocked because I'd only recently done my son's barmitzvah and had witnessed something very powerful; a boy getting up on the bimah and reciting his portion in front of the entire community. Excluding girls from this rite of passage meant they were missing out," she says. "Girls are educated and literate. You can't just sweep them under the carpet. You have a kiddush on Shabbat for a birthday or an anniversary, so why not something as important as a batmitzvah?'

    After attending a batmitzvah where the girl leyned the entire sedra - and her mother the Haftorah - at a women-only Shabbat service, she talked to her rabbi.

    'He's been supportive ever since,' she says.

    Like Estie, Ava learned megillah Ruth over the course of a year and recited it in front of 60 women - all family and friends - in a shul hall on Shavuot.

    Two weeks later, Ava then had her Shabbat batmitzvah (only the third so far in Hale shul) and gave her d'var Torah in front of the entire community before Adon Alom at the end of the service.

    "Ava has been going to shul ever since she was little and when you have a child that is engaged and wants to be involved, how can anyone deny that?" asks Rebecca.

    Educating a new generation of girls on their vital role is why organisations such as Seed, the London School of Jewish Studies and Tribe, are now offering batmitzvah learning programmes for girls - often with their mothers - to prepare them for their entry into Jewish womanhood and to appreciate their role in Jewish history.

    Yet, many have a batmitzvah with no spiritual or religious significance.

    Natalie Ross, a member of B'nei Yisroel synagogue in Hendon, didn't even think to notify her rabbi about her daughters' batmitzvahs (nor did he contact her). She ended up throwing two parties.

    "It is only now, in the run up to my son's barmitzvah that I can see the difference," says Natalie. 'For a year beforehand, boys are training to do something they've never done before. It's a test of their learning, concentration and ability but there doesn't seem to be the same significance attached to a girl becoming a Jewish woman."

    Rabbi Chaim Kanterovitz from Borehamwood and Elstree Synagogue wants to ensure girls in his vast community of over 1400 families don't feel the same way.

    'Our attitude is that batmitzvahs are just as important as barmitzvahs and we have to strive towards incorporating women and girls into the community, working within halachah,' he says. His daughter was batmitzvah in shul last June, delivering a D'var Torah from the pulpit before Adon Alom, and handing out notes to the congregants on pink paper. "This is the way forward. If girls are happy to take on more and do more, then we can do it and will do it."

    The benefits can be great as Estie Gordon can attest: "I got so much from my batmitzvah. My d'var Torah in shul made me learn to write a speech, and taught me how to speak in public and present myself in front of lots of people. As for reading the megillah, I was so happy I did it. Afterwards, an older girl came up to me and said she wished she'd done that for her batmitzvah. It just shows you don't have to do what the shul says is the normal thing to do. There's so much more we can do, even within the Orthodox framework."

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