By Joanne Kamens Niewood
One of the first special events of the Shaarei Tefillah Women’s Tefillah Group (WTG) was a Bat Mitzvah. Since that time, girls and young women in our kahal (congregation) have actively participated in many aspects of ritual including leading Shabbat services, reading Torah, participating in a women’s Simchat Torah service, and reading from Megilot Esther, Eichah and Ruth. We have also developed an innovative Bat Mitzvah tutoring program where older girls (15 and older) have the opportunity to teach the younger girls for their B'not Mitzvah. We are currently exploring ways to expand the WTG’s community activities beyond ritual, and into other areas such as learning. This will likely give more girls (and women) a chance to participate after Bat Mitzvah. Not all girls (just like not all boys) enjoy the public performance aspect of leading a service or chanting from the Torah. While we are advocates of teaching all girls to read and appreciate the Torah trope, in my opinion, we will do well to find ways for the girls that don’t enjoy that aspect of synagogue involvement to participate in other ways with the WTG community of women.
The Women's Tefillah Group (WTG) of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton, MA has gathered monthly since 1992 and has had a regular Mincha service on Shabbat Mevarchim Hachodesh (Blessing the New Month) since 1994. The services all take place in our synagogue under the halakhic guidance of Rabbi Samuels, and builds upon the guidelines set by the shul's founding board of halakhic advisors. Our WTG also meets for special events such as women's Torah reading on Simchat Torah (the longest standing event which has been going on since 1985), Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and readings of Megillot Eichah, Ruth, and Esther. In 1997, the WTG was established as a standing committee of the synagogue with representation on the Board.
Meshing with the Community
Almost all girls in our community celebrate their B'not Mitzvah by giving a d’var Torah to the congregation. Many girls in our congregation also choose to celebrate their Bat Mitzvah with a WTG celebration. The WTG and the full Kahal encourage all girls to do what makes them feel most comfortable and provides them with a sense of accomplishment and we encourage multiple models for the Bat Mitzvah celebration. We have never wanted to encourage one practice (the way boys are often expected in the community to do a certain amount or participate in a certain way). In this way, WTG provides a welcoming space for the women and girls who want to participate, but does not place pressure on those women and girls who do not feel comfortable participating in a WTG service.
The Little Girls
In every Orthodox congregation there are those little girls that look up with longing at the boys doing the “finishing up” or opening the aron (ark). While this longing is not universal, WTG provides an opportunity for those girls who wish to open the aron or lead Aleynu and Yigdal from the bimah. We love to hear a four year old girl get up and belt out Yigdal with fervor.
Pre-Bat Mitzvah girls finish up our service, especially in the months before their WTG Bat Mitzvah service. This gives them important practice singing in front of the kahal. Invariably the girls that have had this “practice” are less nervous and more comfortable getting up and leading the kahal on the big day. They are also invited to “practice” having an aliyah at our Simchat Torah reading in the year before their actual Bat Mitzvah. In order to make the Bat Mitzvah an even more symbolic transition to adulthood, pre-Bat Mitzvah girls are not allowed to read Torah publicly or hold the Torah during Simchat Torah dancing. They would never want to do Yigdal for WTG after their Bat Mitzvah!
On Simchat Torah, we gather for Kol Ha’Nearot (lit.,"voice of the youth [girls]," a ceremony reserved for the children of the community) to finish up our Simchat Torah WTG service. All the little girls come under a tallit for this aliyah before we join our full kahal for Kol Ha’Nearim (lit., “voice of the youth [boys and girls]”). The adult who is honored with that aliyah is a woman or girl in the community who has worked with our young people in some capacity: youth committee chair, youth group leader, candy lady (me), tutored Bat Mitzvah students, organized chesed for new babies, etc.
Bat Mitzvah Celebrations
Since the beginning of the group over twenty years ago, girls have celebrated their B'not Mitzvah during the Mincha service. We encourage all girls to participate in the way that will make them feel most proud and accomplished. Girls have the option of reading Torah from the klaf (scroll), acting as achazanit (cantor) and leading the service and delivering a d’var Torah. Many girls do all three of these things, while others challenge themselves to do even more. Some girls learned to read the entire parsha (portion) which was recited as three long aliyot at Mincha. Most girls choose to present their d’var Torah after Musaf for the entire shul (which is the practice for all women speakers at Shaarei Tefillah) or to read from Megillat Esther on Purim, Eichah on Tisha B’Av or Ruth on Shavuot.
Since 2009, girls have also had the option to celebrate their B'not Mitzvah at Shabbat Shacharit WTG services. WTG Shacharit is held in a separate room from the main service and concludes after the Torah Service at which time all WTG participants rejoin the main service for Musaf followed by the Bat Mitzvah d’var Torah. This provides an outlet for those girls who want to read the entire parsha, lead a longer service, and learn the Haftorah trope. It also offers a logistical advantage since the girl’s work is done in the morning and the lunch can be more of a relaxed celebration for her and her family. This service is usually well attended and a large Bat Mitzvah celebration can have over two hundred women in attendance.
Participation after Bat Mitzvah
Many Middle and High School girls continue to participate in our WTG after their B'not Mitzvah by leading services and reading regularly for the WTG Mincha service and Simchat Torah reading. On Simchat Torah, the recent Bat Mitzvah girls are invited to read part of the first round of V’zot Habracha for the entire WTG. Afterwards, we divide up into four groups with four Torahs. This year, there were four middle school girls who learned all five aliyot and were able to read the entire portion. One girl even decided about a month before Simchat Torah that she was going to learn the whole portion so she could read in the rotation—and she did.
The more talented Torah readers and those that really love to do it are encouraged to learn the trope for Megillat Esther and read at our Purim reading. This is a big honor for all the readers since it is our only reading of the year that fulfills a halakhic requirement for the listeners. The women who attend this reading are yotzei (fulfilled their obligation) for the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah. Over the years of my involvement, there have been three Bat Mitzvah celebrations on Purim with the celebrant reading Megillat Esther instead of having a regular Mincha or Shacharit celebration. The joy of the holiday is increased by the extra simcha (joy or celebration)! In 2004, one Bat Mitzvah girl learned the entire megillah for her Bat Mitzvah which was quite inspiring and until she graduated high school, it was great to have her as back up on any of the perakim (chapters). However, reading Megillat Esther is such a coveted honor, that our WTG made a rule to prohibit this in future. If a single Bat Mitzvah girl reads all ten perakim that year, the line of people who want to read gets too long. Our WTG always gives preference to first time Megillah readers, so having one person read the whole thing prevents new readers from learning that year.
Our main congregation also celebrates a “youth Shabbat” around graduation time where young people lead the service and give divrei Torah. A High School senior girl will often be invited to give the main d’var Torah. Some years, our WTG girls have organized a youth WTG and done all the parts of that service by themselves.
How do they learn?
Different girls learn to read in different ways. Some have private tutors or learn from a parent or even a sibling. Whenever possible, we like to recruit older girls (15 or older) to teach the younger girls. This has all kinds of advantages. First, the teachers solidify their skills by teaching and become more comfortable with leading the service and reading Torah. Sometimes it is a sneaky way to get the girls to learn something new (like Mincha if they did aShacharit Bat Mitzvah and vice versa). Mostly, teaching gives these girls a valuable opportunity to practice their leadership skills and to feel the pride of seeing their students perform well. The girls also take pride in making some money when they tutor.
Another teaching model that has been tried twice and was very successful is a class for all of the pre-Bat Mitzvah girls. The year before my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, there was an unusual number of girls all planning to celebrate with a WTG Mincha Bat Mitzvah. We were going to have some trouble finding nine tutors for the girls and they were all fairly friendly so we started a class for all of them to learn the Mincha service and Torah trope together. We learned together on Shabbat afternoon for many weeks. As they started learning their own portions, we would also pair off so they could listen and correct each other. Some girls learned just rishon (first portion) and others learned the entire parsha (portion). The added social aspect of this approach, plus the support of other learners made it a great experience for them. They all attended each other’s Bat Mitzvah services with an extra sense of pride. As I recall, the girls also each designed a quilt square and one of the mothers stitched these together into a Torah cover to be used by each girl during her kriyah(Torah reading). It was lovely. Similarly, two years ago I taught four eager, recent Bat Mitzvah girls (and one mom) how to read Megillat Esther for last year’s Purim reading. First time readers are always given precedence at our Megillah reading and with five new readers that year, it was a frailich celebration. One of those students is already teaching a new reader who will read two perakim (chapters) and celebrate her Bat Mitzvah on Purim 2013.
The girls that go on to teach other students are usually among those who participate the most after Bat Mitzvah. We don’t have enough data to give you any official outcomes, but I would guess that the girls that teach and/or continue to participate in WTG in some way after Bat Mitzvah are more likely to seek out or create a WTG experience later in college or afterwards. In my years of participation, one of our most active teachers went on to become a JOFA Campus Fellow and is active in women’s tefillah at Yale. My daughter (who was taught by me) went on to teach eight students (including a set of triplets). One of her students has gone on to teach two students so far. I don’t think I have to tell you how proud we are of all of these girls and what it feels like when one of our own girls is the gabbait at the Bat Mitzvah of her student.
I was surprised to see that in the last eighteen years, perhaps only two boys have learned and read Megillat Esther while in our community. If we don’t take it as a responsibility to teach our children—who will read on college campuses and in synagogues thirty years from now? Dozens of girls have learned to read Torah in our WTG and over 20 girls have learned to read Megillat Esther—now all we have to do is help them find ways to use these skills in their college and adult lives.
- How are girls involved in ritual at your synagogue?
- Is there a meaningful way for girls and women to continue to stay involved in the community after becoming a Bat Mitzvah?
- Are you interested in partnering with JOFA or Shaarei Tefillah to create meaningful experiences for Middle and High School girls in your synagogue community?