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The Legacy of The Bat Mitzvah

oshra

This essay is brought to The Layers Project Magazine through a partnership with Matan.

I have been thinking a lot about the next stage of parenting for me. 

I have an almost ten-year-old daughter and we all know what that means. Soon enough, she will be a bat mitzvah. Since my own bat mitzvah, I have thought about what an appropriate expression of Jewish femininity and acceptance of the mitzvot should look like. There are so many varied paradigms and I wasn’t sure that I had found the right paradigm for my child, or maybe for me as a mother. 

I think a lot of my mom-friends have been thinking about this issue, too. Parties are fun and joyous; life is short- take every moment to celebrate. Do I want to make her feel special? 100%. If a pretty dress and something sparkly brings her joy, I am totally there. 

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what else I want to give to her. What I want her to feel. What I want her to know. 

When I started attending Matan this year as a student, I learned that they run a Bat Mitzvah course that is available all over the world. I was excited to hear about it and luckily for me, Rabbanit Oshra Koren, the founder of the Bat Mitzvah program at Matan and founder of Matan Hasharon, was honored at Matan’s 30th-anniversary dinner last month. I had a chance to speak to her to learn all about this program and wish her a mazal tov on this honor. 

This program was born out of need. Twenty-five years ago, a group of mothers and daughters in Raanana (where Oshra is a rebbetzin) asked for her help. They were asking the very question that I was pondering myself. Boys have meaningful ceremonies of preparation for this next stage of Jewish adulthood and girls struggle to find something meaningful. Would Oshra create a program that mothers and daughters could take together, to usher them into this new stage?

The program that Oshra would create is highly successful and spread all over the world. One can find the program today in New York, New Jersey, Cleveland, Nashville, Charleston, California, Florida, Canada, Edmonton, South America, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, Hong Kong, Australia, South Africa, and all over Israel. Clearly, there was a real need that our Jewish communities wanted to fill. She also adapted a version of the program for moms and daughters who identify as non-denominational, which was not hard to do. This program was designed to explore in a foundational sense what it means to be a Jewish woman.

So what does the program consist of? This is what Oshra told me: “This is an exploration of Jewish women through the ages. Our bat mitzvah girls are a new link in the chain of Jewish women, from the Matriarchs, through the time periods of the Mishna, Talmud, Medieval times, female founders of Zionism and the State of Israel. We provide female Jewish role models, heroines, and leaders for our young women to aspire to. We give them education about the power of Jewish women in our heritage. 

This is not a new concept. I am just taking the women that are already in our Mesorah, in our tradition, and I am putting the spotlight on them. They get center stage. I am telling their stories by exploring the Jewish Herstory. Through delving into their stories, we find the relevance of those women to today’s bat mitzvah girl. We learn about their characteristics, the values they embodied in their personalities, and I believe that through these women, we are bringing to light abstract concepts such as leadership, learning, faith, and giving to others.”

Then Oshra told me how the classes are structured. There is chavruta learning between mothers and daughters and the sense is that each cohort of chavrutot creates their own beit midrash atmosphere. There are creative elements to every class to ensure that all different kinds of learners benefit from the program; movement, art, music, guided imagery. Oshra says that, “We learn with all our senses. With our intellect, bodies, emotions. It is a holistic approach that also makes each class fun and engaging.” I was smiling through the phone when thinking of my own creative and emotionally intelligent daughter. It is true, she would be totally captivated by the varied methods of learning offered by this program. 

What really hit home for me was the focus on female contributions to our people. That is something that I still grapple with today as an adult. I was so moved to think that my daughter could begin to take her place among our community, already knowing that she has what to offer and that generations of women have been pillars of our community and faith since the beginning. That could cut a clear path of leadership and responsibility for her. Through my conversation with Oshra, I was able to clarify, that indeed I want that for her. Especially today, when so often the contributions and presence of women are erased. 

The program begins with the Imahot, Miriam in the midbar, Devorah the Judge, Chana who prayed, Esther who led, Bruriah who learned; Dona Gracia who supported and saved Jews during the Inquisition, founders of the State of Israel, Nechama Leibowitz, Manya Shochet, Noami Shemer, Chanah Senesh, Golda Meir, and modern scholars and leaders. Women in politics, military, art, music, teachers, Torah scholars, writers, women of great chesed. Oshra told me, “The point of showcasing different strong women who shaped our world, is also to show them that everyone does it differently. I want them to know that they have unique talents, and it is what makes them unique that is needed in klal yisrael. They need to draw from who they are, to lead in the way that unique to them. They should do what they were born to do, using the talents that Hashem gave to them.” That line brought tears to my eyes. Because it is so true, all of these women showcased leadership differently. They filled the spaces that were needed with talents that were unique to them. Writing, music, art, scholarship, faith, chesed, political leadership, empathy, power. There are so many ways that a woman can lead. Another moment, where I was able to gain clarity about what I want my daughter to know and feel empowered to do. 

This class runs for ten sessions, each for a mother and maternal figure together. I have thought a lot about this pre-teen stage. How the relationship between a mother and a daughter stands at a precipice of change, growth, or conflict. I was excited about the framework of this program, which allows a mom to be there. To be there as an active participant in our child’s growth. To be a support when confronted with new information. An answer when our child has a question. We get to come along for the ride. I learned, through this conversation, that I really want to be there. 

This program is a place to connect and grow together; and can provide beautiful inspiration and a foundation for our new journey, side-by-side. 

I am eager to sign up for the program with my daughter when the time comes. Whatever else she and I decide that we want to do to celebrate and commemorate this moment in her life, we will have to consider. For now, I am so grateful to know that we both have role models for this journey. 

Mazal tov to Rabbanit Oshra Koren on her honor last month at Matan’s 30-anniversary dinner in Jerusalem. 

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Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism. She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira made aliyah with her family a year ago to Jerusalem.

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