Pre-mitzvah education in an Orthodox-egalitarian community

  • by: Menucha Cohen Amir and Elana Maryles Sztokman

Dr. Menucha Cohen Amir is a lecturer in education at Bar-Ilan University, and is the head of the Informal Education department at the Efrata Teacher Training College. Dr. Elana Sztokman is contributing editor to Jewish Educational Leadership.

How much of bar/bat-mitzvah education needs to be gender-specific? This innovative program proposes a gender-neutral program to prepare young men and women for adult Jewish life.

Bat-mitzvah, the coming of age ceremony for Jewish girls, has undergone some potentially significant changes within the Orthodox community. Having arrived in the Orthodox community gradually over the past 25 years, largely as a result of feminist activism, bat-mitzvah has been markedly different from bar-mitzvah. While the boys’ ceremony, which exists in some form for approximately five centuries, has historically revolved around boys’ initiation into active participation in the prayer services – i.e., learning to lay tefillin, counting in a prayer quorum, being called up to the Torah, and leading the services – alongside a festive celebration and meal, for most of that time, a parallel ceremony for girls has been virtually non-existent, since girls traditionally do not count in the prayer quorum, and their role in synagogue, if anything, is of passive, invisible observer. Well into the twentieth century, girls were being taught that from the age of 12, their entry into Jewish life revolves around future motherhood, and that their primary role is caretaking, a function that exempts them from public responsibilities.

In the late 1970s’s, the feminist revolution prompted a reconsideration of the meanings of bat-mitzvah. In those early years, the most radical celebrations generally included a party, or perhaps the young woman offering words of Torah in a celebration outside the prayer service.

Since the formation of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and the first conference on Orthodoxy and Feminism in 1997, there have been some interesting developments in bat-mitzvah. All-women’s prayer groups, a practice advocated by JOFA, the Women’s Tefilla Network, Rabbi Avi Weiss (of Riverdale, New York), and other Orthodox feminist groups around the world, was the first venue that enabled a bat-mitzvah girl to read from the Torah. Although the women’s prayer groups differ from a “standard” mixed service in some significant ways – e.g., the women do not count as a quorum, certain prayers that only men are allowed to lead are excluded, and of course it is all women (up to nine men are allowed to listen in) – nonetheless, this was a groundbreaking practice in that, for the first time in the Orthodox community, girls were allowed to take on roles – public roles – that were reserved for men.

Along with women’s prayer groups, a parallel development took place in women’s and girls’ Torah learning with the spread of mother-daughter pre-bat-mitzvah Torah learning programs. These programs are sometimes thought of as pioneering. Dr. Bryna Levy, director of MaTaN’s Graduate Program in Biblical Studies, writes in Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat-mitzvah (Wiskind Elper, 2003) that there is a “quiet revolution taking place today in classrooms and halls of study”. However, the claim of Torah learning as being “revolutionary” is somewhat dubious, since the issue of girls’ learning, issues addressed and resolved in some places decades ago, may seem like a few steps backwards. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, among others, was encouraging girls to learn Talmudic texts like boys over half a century ago. Whether such learning-focused program is revolutionary or not remains questionable.

Moreover, Shira Surkis-Weil (2004) conducted ethnographic research to examine the underlying messages of several mother-daughter bat-mitzvah learning programs in Israel, and found that the messages conveyed are very traditional, encouraging bodily “modesty”, kindness, and servitude rather than leadership, public roles, and social activism. Furthermore, she found few opportunities for genuine independent expression or expressions of public leadership roles. Thus, the supposed “revolution” of girls’ learning is not only regressive in that it sends even very learned women back to traditional gender roles of being caregivers, but by insisting on its own role as “pioneering” it blocks more progressive options, such as promoting women’s role in synagogue.

Nonetheless, many girls and women have responded to their limitations with some creative ingenuity. Some schools, families and synagogues have created their own ceremonies, such as havdallah ceremonies, poetry, dance, art, and music, as well as building connections to places in Israel, visiting cemeteries, creating family trees, adopting charity or social action projects and writing original prayers. According to Blu Greenberg, today Orthodox girls are marking bat-mitzvah in larger numbers than girls from other denominations.

Perhaps most significantly, compared to Orthodox boys, Orthodox girls have many creative options – except for the one option open to boys of counting in a minyan and laying tefillin. Meanwhile, boys have few if any creative options at all. In other words, even as Orthodox girls are being left out of the formal sanctuary, Orthodox boys are being left out of affairs of the heart and spirit. Despite all the societal shifts, boys and girls in the Orthodox community continue to be socialized into vastly different gender roles.

Bar/bat-mitzvah in an Orthodox-egalitarian synagogue

Kehilat Darchei Noam, an Orthodox-egalitarian synagogue in Modi’in, Israel, proposed an innovative solution in which both boys and girls are encouraged to adopt normative forms of participation and leadership along with creative, emotional, individualistic and personal explorations.

This educational program is particularly striking within the context of our synagogue. The prayer format, which maximizes women’s participation in the service within the framework of halakhah, has a partition down the middle and the stand in the center. Both men and women get called to the Torah, from both sides of the partition, lead parts of the service, give speeches, and sit on boards. While there are currently 7-8 such communities around the world, from Maryland to Melbourne, our synagogue has dozens of children who are just approaching bar/bat-mitzvah. As such, it is a perfect opportunity to put ideas of educating for religious egalitarianism into action within a pre-bar/bat-mitzvah format, and to encourage gender equality alongside commitment to mitzvot from a young age.

A committee of parents of the pre-mitzvah children met over the course of two months and built a unique pre-mitzvah program. The 14-week program was custom designed around themes, in no order of priority:

  • Commitment to halakhah. Entering the Jewish community means acting and being committed to fulfilling God’s commandments and taking responsible roles within the community, with an emphasis on the historical and social contexts of halakhic development .
  • Social justice. The course emphasized that the most important commandments have to do with inter-personal care, compassion, empathy and acting on behalf of one’s fellow human being.
  • Prayer. A central component of religious life is the prayer service, in which both men and women should participate equally as part of a community.
  • Equality. Both men and women, boys and girls, have equal responsibilities and equal rights, and should express their religiousness in fair and equal ways.
  • Personal explorations and connections. In a series of exercises and text study, participants explored their own experiences and expectations, as well as their family histories and traditions. The purpose is to encourage personal meaning while emphasizing connections to one’s own past and people.

In addition, the course itself promoted values of cooperation, mutual respect and diversity in the way it was created and implemented. The 90-minute weekly sessions were taught by the parents and synagogue members, according to the topics that most spoke to them, and hosted by different families in rotation. The sessions generally consisted of both text study and learning the Torah cantillation, sending the message that both boys and girls must work on their private-personal religious development along with their public-service religious commitment. These activities were also interspersed with games, exercises, a rabbinical guest speaker and a visit to the Heichal Shlomo Jewish museum in Jerusalem. In addition, the group is now working on a group social action project.

One of the most significant sessions was an “activism panel”. The evening began with a parents-children hevruta study around issues of social justice and charity. Then, four members of the kehillah who are active in different social causes, either as professionals or as volunteers, presented what they do and why. The message was that social action and volunteerism are a vital, central component of what it means to be a member of the Jewish community.

The nine participants, six girls and three boys, have thus far responded very positively. They have developed a group rapport, with their own inside jokes, and talk about how much they have gotten to know one another along the way. They also express a very strong commitment to the synagogue model, and some have said that they find it difficult to walk into a synagogue where women are in the “traditional” roles. They are all now committed to social justice as well as committed to Torah.

The program is still going on, but many parents have expressed interest in doing it again next year. Some have also suggested that we export the program and let others benefit from it. Over the next few months, we will collect feedback in order to revise and improve the program. Perhaps we will create a format in which other communities can use the program. At the very least, we hope that the fact that this program exists will inspire other communities to think about messages of egalitarianism alongside Torah commitment as their children embark on this most important life change.


Surkis-Weil, Shira. (2004). “Bat mitzvah – an arena for developing feminine, religious and national identity”. Master’s thesis, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Department of Education.

Wiskind Elper, Ora, ed. (2003). Traditions and Celebrations for the Bat Mitzvah. Urim.

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