Take Back the Bat Mitzvah!

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Four innovative ways to make the bat mitzvah more personal and religiously meaningful for girls.

by Michelle Cove

Mostly what I remember about my bat mitzvah was spending countless hours trying to memorize the Hebrew for my haftarah portion, words that I never came to understand. I recall trying to find a dress that my mother and I could actually agree upon, worrying about how to hide my gleaming set of braces in photos, and pleading with my parents for a roller-skating reception. I do not remember thinking this felt like a genuine passage into adulthood (come on, I was dealing with sleepover party invites, managing homework, and fighting with my brother about who got to pick the TV show that night).

Long after, I suspected there was a way for a bat mitzvah to be personal and remarkable. I just couldn’t envision what it would look like. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit recently, perhaps because I have a four-year-old daughter and I will face this question, practically and not just theoretically, in my future. So it was through good fortune that a friend of mine introduced me to Rabbi Lev Baesh, the director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at InterfaithFamily.com. He is a creative, out-of-the-box thinker who enjoys developing personal Jewish rituals that will be truly meaningful to people. Below are some of the ideas he had for a bat mitzvah, which I loved so much that I wanted to share them with you so you, in turn, could tell your daughters, nieces, cousins, and other Jewish girls in your life. You can use/suggest one or all of these rituals, or riff off them to create your own; there are no set rules here.

Thirteen blessings.

Ask 13 women in the bat mitzvah girl’s life to gather before the bat mitzvah in a private room and have them bestow some piece of advice, wisdom, poetry, personal story, or wish about becoming a woman. After all, she is going through major body changes, which she may or may not be pleased with, and this can be a wonderful way to support her. This is not a time to poke fun or tease her about becoming a woman, which is the last thing a pre-teen or teen needs in her life, but rather a chance to feel she is becoming part of a community. Ideally, the participants would be women with whom the girl is already acquainted and feels comfortable.

Celebrate decision-making.

One of the things that baffles 13-year-olds is that they are told they are becoming adults even though they are not. If anything, teens typically feel emotional and hormonal and a little out of control. What you can celebrate is that teens are now able to experience deeper, more abstract thoughts. This means they should get more decision-making power around the dinner table, which is something they will appreciate. So, no, they don’t get to decide the family trip this year, but they get to express their opinions and will be taken seriously. Rabbi Lev’s suggestion: Celebrate this power of abstract thought by giving them a conceptual essay to read aloud, based on something meaningful to them, rather than a contrived speech that is typically written by the rabbi or parent anyway. For example, one bat mitzvah girl he worked with loved music more than anything, so he suggested she write about what instrument she was most like and why, and then describe which instrument her family members would be and what kind of music they would make together. This, in turn, lead to a conversation about the nature of community; what kind of music would her community make and what other people would be needed to complete the band if they were to set out to achieve some measure of social justice?

More thoughtful gifts.

Checks, gift cards to Amazon, the latest iPod, Wii. These are typical bat mitzvah gifts that are used, enjoyed, and then forgotten. Ask at least one family member (ideally grandparents) to pass down to the bat mitzvah a unique and personal gift that represents the family. For instance, one teen who worked with Rabbi Lev received from his grandmother a book of poetry, written by his deceased grandfather, that no one had ever seen. This became an incredibly moving exchange for both the grandmother and the teen and, hopefully, the teen will go on to give this gift to his/her own child someday. Other such gifts could be a Star of David necklace, a watch, a letter, or a drawing.

Repair the world.

Of every ritual Rabbi Lev spoke about, this is the most important one as far as he is concerned—the idea that a bat mitzvah learns that she is forever on expected to do her part in tikun olam, in repairing the world. She should get to research and pick her own social justice cause (note: she can Google “tikun olam ideas” for inspiration). She should not be told that it is her duty, but rather an honor. Rabbi Lev was particularly impressed with a teen who arranged with a local gallery to sell his artwork that showcased themes about nature. The proceeds, $900, went to The Fresh Air Fund, which offers free summer vacations in the country to New York City children from disadvantaged families.

These are just some of the ideas that we talked about. More than anything, I loved the approach of encouraging the bat mitzvah to become emotionally and practically involved in the planning of her own ceremony. The more involved she is, the more invested she becomes in her Judaism and also in experiencing some of the enjoyable aspects of adolescence. And for all of us who survived puberty, we know what a rare treat that is.

About the Author

Michelle CoveMichelle Cove
Michelle Cove is the editor of 614. In 2003, she developed and became editor in chief of JVibe, the national magazine for Jewish teens. In 1999, she coauthored I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You!: A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict (Penguin).

levRabbi Lev Baesh
Rabbi Lev Baesh is the director of the Resource Center for Jewish Clergy at InterfaithFamily.com. Prior to his work there, Lev was a congregational rabbi in Dover, New Hampshire. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1994 and also holds a JD from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School at Yeshiva University in New York City and a BA from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Lev lives with his Partner Andrew Martin in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

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