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The growing trend of the grown-up Batmitzvah

  • AdultBatmitzvahs
Karen Kallmann celebrated her Batmitzvah in May at the tender age of 48. She is just one of a number of Cape Town women who have recently chosen to mark this milestone in retrospect – and as adults.
by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | Jun 20, 2019

For Kallmann, an independent researcher in socioeconomics, the seed was planted at the time of her daughter’s Batmitzvah two years ago. “We’re a Modern Orthodox family, and I wasn’t happy with the whole de-emphasis of girls in Judaism,” she says.

“So, we had a Batmitzvah at the shul, but later in the afternoon, we did a [private] halachic partnership minyan* where the Torah service was led by women, and my daughter leined (read from the Torah). It was a very inspiring event. A lot of people enjoyed it.”

For her 48th birthday, Kallmann decided to do something similar, identifying opportunities within the halachic partnership minyan where a woman could lead the service, and allocating those parts to female friends. A “very supportive” male friend performed the parts of the service that could not be led by women.

“We had a mechitzah (partition between men and women), but men and women were leading the service.”

She says the halachic acceptability of women reading from the Torah, and leading parts of the service in the presence of men is “up for debate”.

“When I asked my rabbi, he sought opinions from other rabbis. The response was that it is halachically fine, but it isn’t done. It’s not accepted in the mainstream, but it definitely is accepted in many Modern Orthodox communities around the world.”

Kallmann stresses that in constructing the private service, she relied on guidelines on partnership minyans (the quorum of ten adults required for religious obligations) published by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA). This alliance aims to expand spiritual, ritual, intellectual, and political opportunities for women within the framework of halacha, or Jewish law.

“It was wonderful. For someone who’s observant and really wants to connect more, it was empowering,” she reflected on the occasion. “In a way, it was probably better than having it as a child because I could do what I wanted.”

In a more traditional vein, Rebbetzin Lee Liebenberg of the Claremont Wynberg Hebrew Congregation, has over the past year been offering Master of Batmitzvah Advancement (MBA) classes to a group of 10 adult women whose graduation took place recently. This is the first time that something of this sort has taken place in Cape Town.

“Over the years, I’ve heard from many women either that they never got the opportunity to celebrate a Batmitzvah when they were 12 years old, or if they did, it didn’t have that much resonance for them at the time,” she says. “Now that they’re older, they really want to deepen their understanding of yiddishkeit.”

The women, ranging in age from their early 30s to late 60s, met every Sunday morning for a year to tackle topics such as belief in G-d, Jewish history, and the Big Bang Theory, along with analysis of the first chapter of Bereishit.

A chesed (lovingkindness) component of the course involved decorating the Rosh Hashanah table of the Oranjia Jewish Child & Youth Centre, as well as engaging in a challah bake that ensured the children had home-baked challah for yom tov (the festival).

“The ladies were incredibly dedicated,” Liebenberg reflects. “They were so inspired and motivated to continue learning – they’ve all asked me when I’m going to do their PhD.

“What was beautiful was to see people of different ages and stages uniting through learning Torah,” she says. “They were strangers when they met, and they’ve really formed into a group of friends.”

Nicole Sherman didn’t have a Batmitzvah at the age of 12, so when Rebbetzin Liebenberg offered the course, she jumped at the chance. “I guess because I’d missed out when I was younger, and I really wanted to do this for myself. I had no idea what I was going to learn,” she says.

“I thought we were going to do challah baking (which we did) and visit the mikveh (ritual bath) – which we also did – and learn a little bit. I was more worried that I was going to end up doing a d’var Torah (sermon interpreting text from the Torah) at the end of it. Thank goodness that wasn’t the case!”

The course has “absolutely” inspired her to continue learning, “but in topics that I would really be interested in, and something that was more on my level”.

Sherman says she now has a better understanding of Jewish history. She also relates, for example, that the group went through the Eshet Chayil (special tribute to Jewish women) line by line. “I never knew any of that. Now I want to learn more if I can.”

Since graduating, she says she feels “like I’ve completed something really amazing with a much deeper meaning. I feel excited that I spent an entire year doing something for myself.”

While she is “very happy” to have her Sundays back, she would “probably” do a PhD. “You must always carry on learning – you can never learn enough,” she states.

During the course of preparing young girls for Batmitzvah in Johannesburg, Adina Roth, Torah scholar, teacher, and clinical psychologist, has also had many mothers tell her that they either didn’t have a Batmitzvah, or that it was without meaning for them. They say they wish they’d had the “full curriculum” their daughters were experiencing.

It inspired Roth to start a course for adult women later this year. Roth has, in fact, prepared an 82-year-old woman for her second Batmitzvah, although she did not have a first Barmitzvah. “She gave a d’var Torah – it was very beautiful,” she remembers.

Roth’s Batmitzvah course will span a year, during which 12 biblical women or women from the Talmud are studied, one every month. “It will bring up themes that will allow the women to explore themselves spiritually and psychologically,” she says.  “They will also have the option of leining within a strictly halachic context.”

She agrees that this growing phenomenon demonstrates that adult women are serious about advancing their knowledge of Judaism as well as developing their skills and wanting a ritual to mark the transition. “After adolescence and marriage, there are very few life-cycle moments that mark our transitions, yet as human beings, we move into different phases of our lives all the time,” she says.

“Without the appropriate rituals, we don’t always have the support to grow as we might into these next phases. The course will be about harnessing Jewish texts and Jewish learning to help.”

  • *A halachic partnership minyan is a prayer group committed to maintaining halachic standards and practices while including women in ritual leadership roles to the fullest extent possible within the boundaries of Jewish law.

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