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Megillat Esther and Batmitzvah: encouraging female leadership




It seems as if children and their parents have an understanding that the Barmitzvah ritual is an essential Jewish rite of passage, and a lot of energy is allocated to preparing for this special time in a young person’s life.

I am sure many of us have heard the rabbi giving the Barmitzvah sermon, and exhorting the child to stay involved. “Don’t become a stranger,” says the rabbi.

One could argue that the teen years are a challenging time to foster any singular identity. As our developmental psychologists explain, adolescence is a time for existential exploration. So perhaps after the ritual of B’neimitzvah, it is appropriate that our teenagers embark on identity journeys. At the same time, are there not ways we can assist our teens to connect to Jewish tradition, even while given the space to explore their horizons?

In traditional orthodox circles, many boys are equipped with a set of skills post Barmitzvah. They are able to lead parts of the service, and many of them are able to lein (chant traditional Torah cantillation), whether it is from the Torah or from the haftarah section.

One of the ways I have seen boys become more involved after their Barmitzvah is by being called in to shul to sing Anim Zemirot, or to lein. Granted, not all young people are leaders of prayer, or “wannabe” leiners. Nevertheless, it seems that the skills a Barmitzvah boy is encouraged to acquire give him the potential to develop a contributory role to the community as a leader in public Jewish life.

The rewards abound. As the young man contributes to the community, he develops an internal sense of his contributory capacities. The newly acquired sense of self makes him want to get involved more.

I have heard of many boys who have gone on to lead services at their school or who have been invited to lein at one of the upcoming Jewish holidays.

What about our girls? Shouldn’t we be seeking similar, halachically viable options for girls to develop skill sets at the time of Batmitzvah that can encourage their roles as leaders in our communities? I raise this question because of something I witnessed recently.

An incumbent Batmitzvah born two days before Purim decided she would learn to lein a chapter of the Megillah for her Batmitzvah. At first, she intended to perform this leining at her ceremony for friends and family as an indication of her learning. However, as she mastered the Megillah cantillation, a new opportunity emerged: An orthodox shul in Johannesburg was hosting a women’s Megillah reading, and she was invited to celebrate her Jewish coming of age by reading the Megillah for women on Purim.

As we assembled on Purim, I could see there were a number of young girls in the community who had come to support their friend. The young girl was a little nervous, but well prepared. She got up and chanted Chapter 6 of the Megillah with care, patience, and a lot of meaning.

When I looked around at the young girls who had come to support her, there was a shining light in their eyes. They saw their friend doing something of substance and meaning, making a contribution to the wider community in a religiously significant way on her Batmitzvah. But just as importantly, they realised that they could do it too.

After the reading, I said to this girl, you can do this every year, and she nodded and smiled.

But there was more. Two other girls participating in the reading were in high school. Each of them had had opportunities at the time of their Batmitzvahs to read from the Torah in halachic settings. While there are not many options for them to develop these capacities in Johannesburg, the women’s Megillah reading gives them the opportunity to prepare the Megillah and lein for the community.

One of these young women was leining for the third year in a row, and had taken on extra learning. The second young woman was leining for the first time, and absolutely loved the experience. These girls were post Batmitzvah, but had found ways in which to engage.

Young women are increasingly finding their voices in the wider, secular world. It seems we have a concurrent obligation as a community to identify spaces where young women can be affirmed in public, religiously significant roles. This way, we can ensure their connectedness to our tradition, and foster their potential as Jewish leaders.

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