By Anna Kislanski (Kehillat Hashachar, Even Yehuda)
Over the years WRJ has supported the growth of our Israel movement in many ways, including funding for the World Education Center in Jerusalem, Kibbutz Lotan, and the Israel Religious Action Center. Through the YES Fund, WRJ makes annual grants to the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), which in recent years has supported the development and expansion of its inspirational and groundbreaking Mother-Daughter Bat Mitzvah program. The message below highlights why this project is such an important and meaningful contribution to progressive Judaism in Israel.
How can one summarize an entire year of maturation, excitement, questions, mother-daughter relations and Jewish identity into one page of a blog, in order to describe what my own daughter, Mika, and I have been through together? Almost half a year since our bat mitzvah, I sit on the couch at home and skim the pictures, greetings and sermons from the class parties, mother-daughter group sessions we joined, and the graduation of the group. I ask myself – were these same events as significant or as powerful for my daughter as they were for me?
During the year, thanks to the Mother-Daughter sessions we went on a Bat Mitzvah journey which ended on the morning of the ceremony in the synagogue, which also included Mika being called to the Torah. I found myself laughing, crying, hugging, and studying with my beloved child, explaining to myself and other mothers how important it is to break the “Bas Mitzvoos” barrier and find real meaningful Jewish language in this custom, which the Israel of 2013 undervalues and instead succumbs to Western consumer culture with families that celebrate with nothing more than a “Mani-Pedi-party and a cake with glitter.”
It all started when I received an email from parents of my daughter’s school. It roughly said that "in order to coordinate all of the Bat Mitzvah parties, we would like to encourage holding only one party for every 2-3 girls and request that gifts not cost more than NIS 50." The next day the madness began: my daughter texting her friends, stressed mothers trying to coordinate dates and book venues, searching for shops and websites with the best dresses, and the embarrassment of not a few fathers who just did not understand how their sweet little girls had turned into the Bat Mitzvah version of “Bridezillas,” along with a lot of pressured and puzzled mothers.
Yes, we all realized that we were facing a "monster" that represents our culture of abundance. When I asked other moms what they were planning for their daughters (aside from the evening of "Queen for a Day" with a lot of games, a chocolate fountain, photo magnets, red carpets and fireworks), some had a trip abroad, others a party for the family, a few wanted to produce a "Book" (fancy photo album that chronicles the girls’ life) and ... that was it.
Hold on there just a moment. What about the Bat Mitzvah? Surely there is a reason to mark this date at the age of 12 and not 18. The boys learn their weekly Torah portion, the Haftorah and learn how to put on tefillin, while the girls in Israel 2013 get a haircut and measured for a dress? This Israeli reality is immeasurably embarrassing. Quite a few mothers said "thank goodness for equality! When I was little my brother celebrated a Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue, but I didn’t have anything. At least we’re having a big, shiny party..." This did not satisfy me and in the end this is why 17 pairs of mothers and daughters joined the Even Yehuda "Mother-Daughter Bat Mitzvah" project of the Reform movement.
Confession #1: I belong to the Reform Movement in Israel, both professionally and personally. My family belongs to the Reform congregation in Even Yehuda, and such things as communal learning, equality between women and men, Liberal Judaism, welcoming Shabbat and Tikkun Olam, are part of our lives.
Confession #2: the truth behind B’not Mitzvah in the Reform Movement – unfortunately, despite the Reform movement in Israel's achievements, the numbers of egalitarian ceremonies in our synagogue aren’t "exploding". The Bat Mitzvah glass ceiling seems thicker than ever and still less than one percent of our girls have a meaningful Bat Mitzvah in our synagogues.
Confession #3: our daughter Mika is after all, a teenager: despite being only 12 years old, my daughter is smart, socially vibrant, with a will of her own, and emotionally mature. Even so, for her to declare to her friends "I'm going to be different and be called up to the Torah" would have been considered social suicide. However, when a number of mothers got organized and invited her and her friends to join Kehillat Hashachar’s Mother-Daughter program, they happily “jumped on the bandwagon.” After all, who wouldn’t want to spend two hours of weekly quality time of debate and experience with their mothers along with their friends, pizza and chocolate? And so we found ourselves meeting, experiencing, feeling and learning together – a group of mothers and daughters abandoning themselves of school, work and home just to investigate the significance of the “Year of Mitzvot.”
Some mothers, who had felt conflicted about this process, noted that they were surprisingly pleased to find how much this helped them feel a significant partnership with their daughters. For those who were not previously involved in our Reform community, this was their first exposure to the idea of female rabbinic leadership and the concepts of community and Liberal Judaism. They began to understand that being Jewish can be an egalitarian and empowering and they learned to understand what is behind the concept of "Bat Mitzvah."
Together we got to know each other and “wear each other’s shoes” (our group leader Rabbi Orna Pilz literally asked us to do this once), we talked about adulthood and maturity, Tikkun Olam, female leadership, Shabbat, prayer, and body image along with many traditional Jewish topics while combining creativity, tours and discussions about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. The meetings were filled with laughter and love and our graduation ceremony was celebrated with blessings, sermons and midrashim, Havdalah and even more love – all together with our whole families.
But what about my Mika?
We scheduled the ceremony for Mika for the Torah Portion Shelach Lecha at Kehillat Hashachar. While we were doing this, Mika asked “will you allow me to 'choose' if I’m called up to the Torah”? I told her, “This is not a choice – it's a gift.”
When I think about this answer, I remember a beautiful poem composed by the poet Tirza Atar called "When you grow up you'll understand" which is a dialogue between a mother and her little daughter.
Mother, is that a moon, a stone?
So large, huge and white
But she is very, very far and so she looks so small
Mother, is that a child in this stomach?
And you will have?
I do not have a big belly
No, you do not
now you are small and so you cannot
How is the child there; like a butterfly?
No, it is hard to explain, just believe, when you grow up, you will understand
This poem largely reflects some of the choices I allowed myself to make this year regarding my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. True, we did not ask, we told our daughter that she would be called up to the Torah. After all, she wanted (and got) the usual “Bas Mitzvoos” package: a party for her classmates, fancy dresses, and a trip abroad ... but regarding the other part – she may have chosen it anyway and she may not. But in the end, she came to the Torah out of love and enjoyment. We both shivered with excitement when she said the words “Before this audience I choose to be counted among the people of Israel ... to be source of pride to my family, my community and my nation ... as the Torah scroll is handed down from generation to generation, to the sons and to the daughters, in this all will rejoice.”
Tirza Atar concluded her poem from the perspective of the mother:
And only I, with the answers in my mouth
know the big secret
even when we grow, we do not understand
just simply, one day
we stop asking.
I feel that in my life, as a mother, most of the time not all the answers are in my mouth. Over the years I must have made wrong decisions and choices. I do not know if my answers were enough for my daughter, but I'm definitely at peace with the journey we went through last year and we both feel that the relationship between us has become stronger because we experienced this process together.
Anna Kislanski is Director of Community Development, Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (the IMPJ is the Reform Movement in Israel) and was the Reform Movement’s Central Shlicha for URJ 2005-2009.
The WRJ Ten Minutes of Torah series is sponsored by the Blumstein Family Fund and by Sandi and Mike Firsel and Temple Chai Sisterhood.