100 Years of the Bat Mitzvah: Stories From Hadassah Members
Dorrie Kahn, 1957
My bat mitzvah…started with me belonging to a Young Judaea Chapter. And that chapter started with my mom, Lil Zasler, who was a Hadassah chapter president from about 1948 to 1950 in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Lil was determined to have her children grow up loving Israel and being Jewish!I got to know other Young Judaeans in the towns of Knoxville and Chattanooga. I heard them talking about having a bat mitzvah! I told my parents that I wanted one, too. They agreed with me, especially my mom. It never dawned on me that the rabbi never taught me any of the prayers or anything else. I found out later that he did not approve of the bat mitzvah. So, he went out of town on the weekend of my celebration. In April 1957, as a 13-year-old, I had my bat mitzvah. Almost all of the congregation came. It was the very first bat mitzvah for our town and congregation!
Cherie Rosenstein, 2022
I was born in 1942 in Paris…when Jews were pushed into ghettos and extermination camps. My parents died at Bergen-Belsen.My story defied the odds and was sprinkled with miracles. It is by Divine Providence, caring hearts and morally conscientious rescuers that I survived. First I was hidden by nuns in a Catholic convent. At war’s end, I was cared for by dedicated workers in a Jewish orphanage. Vaad Hatzalah, an Orthodox Jewish rescue organization, brought me to America in 1948 to be adopted by a loving family.Judaism served as a mosaic thread weaving my past and present together. I grew up in an Orthodox home. I attended 100-plus bar mitzvah but not a single bat mitzvah. I thought women were not allowed on the bimah and only boys were allowed to read the Torah. Women simply played no role in synagogue services.As I neared my 80th birthday, I wanted to celebrate it differently. I preferred some Jewish relevance with spiritual fulfillment. With my cantor’s (Cantor Aaron Shifman) imminent retirement and teaching his final bat mitzvah class at B’nai Jeshurun Congregation, I knew this was the perfect mission and time for me.I was challenged by the tropes and wondered if I had it in me to do this. With the cantor’s tapes, I practiced every day and was determined to succeed. The practice paid off. I’m reaching what once to me was an unattainable goal. Bat mitzvahs are no longer the mere rite of passage for teenage girls. Bubbes, too, are now fulfilling their dreams and taking advantage of chances they never had.
I will be joining 10 other sisters for our b’not mitzvah. On this momentous day, we will be united in affirming our love and commitment to our Jewish faith and precious legacy. For us, the day will be a dream come true—a testament to women’s growing egalitarian and partnership role in Jewish society.
My bat mitzvah was held in the Abbell Synagogue at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem with its magnificent Chagall windows. The date was April 22, 2018, the last day of the Hadassah Israel at 70 Mission. We were in Israel during Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when we remember the fallen soldiers, and then joined the joyful celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, commemorating Israel’s 70th birthday, with songs and dancing. A group of us gathered in the Abbell Synagogue. Barbara Goldstein read the Torah and, one by one, called us to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.
HADASSAH JOINS JEWISH COMMUNITIES ACROSS NORTH AMERICA
Hadassah is a proud partner in Rise Up/Bat Mitzvah at 100 with the Jewish Women’s Archive, SAJ and Jewish communities across North America, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the bat mitzvah and the girls who paved the way for Jews of all genders to participate in Jewish communal life. On March 18-19, Jewish communities will participate in Rise Up/Bat Mitzvah at 100, a National Shabbat Celebration.
On May 15, 1954, I became the first bat mitzvah in the history of Temple Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun, a large Reform congregation in Milwaukee, Wis. My beloved Holocaust-survivor father, Erwin Diwald, “assigned” me large portions of the Torah, haftarah and wrote my speech. By all accounts, it was a great success. I was 12 years old.
Deana Freedman, no bat mitzvah
Maybe Hadassah should ask why so many of us women, of a certain age, were never allowed or given the privilege or option of having that beautiful tradition and how they felt about being left out?I grew up in a Conservative synagogue in the Midwest. Women were not permitted on the bimah. My bat mitzvah would have been in 1955. B’not mitzvah were in the very early stages of being accepted in Conservative Judaism. There had only been two or three ever at our synagogue. They were daughters of wealthy, elite families that threw expensive parties. Most girls could not afford to follow that tradition. Not one of my girlfriends had a bat mitzvah, while all my boyfriends had b’nei mitzvah. You might ask why later on in my life I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. It just was not the same feeling to me. I wanted it when I was 13. The fact that my husband and children all had b’nei mitzvah gave my great joy, but I never forgot that I did not have that opportunity.
Nancy Rips, 1957
Some girls have their bat mitzvah with their cousins or classmates. I had mine with my twin brother, the first boy and girl b’nei mitzvah in our Conservative Synagogue in Omaha, Nebr. The night before, we had our final rehearsal with the cantor. My brother and I started giggling so much, the cantor said to us, “If you two don’t stop laughing, I’m going to call off the whole weekend.” I whispered to my brother, “We better be quiet or Mom will kill us.” No one killed anyone. We’re still laughing together 65 years later.
Debra Kanter, 1965
As my mom’s only daughter and her mama’s only granddaughter, I carried the honor and burden of perpetuating the Jewish family for all my foremothers. Girls did not read Torah in those days. That special Friday night, after my “performance,” I ran around the social hall with my friends after Kiddush. I know my mom was proud of my Jewish accomplishment. I am fairly sure it meant more to her than to me.
As I recall my own daughter as a bat mitzvah, I know my Bubbe would have been so full of naches that she would not have been able to speak. Not only did my daughter chant Torah and haftarah flawlessly, but she led the entire morning’s service, including Shacharit.
Carol Greenberg, ages 12 and 36
My bat mitzvah was a process, an idea, a concept. Not a moment in a specific time, but a time of moments over a lifetime of seeking, searching for connections as a woman in a historically patriarchal community.I told my grandmother that if she met me at temple by 10 a.m., she could hear me participate. She made her aliyah in time to indeed hear me chanting words of Torah. I shut my eyes and nervously recited from memory, I opened my eyes and saw my grandmother at the door, witness to my first attempt to be counted in my community.I realized that bat mitzvah, for me, was also not a moment in time, but a state of mind. Like a pinpoint in eternity where we all are standing at the foot of Sinai awaiting revelation, I wanted—even if I was not the generation to go into the Promised Land—to be prepared.
Stephanie Chernoff, 1979
On May 5, 1979, I became a bat mitzvah at Huntington Jewish Center, in Huntington, N.Y. I was the second girl in the congregation to become a bat mitzvah on Shabbat morning. The second girl in a large Conservative congregation to chant all the aliyot from the Torah, to recite the haftarah. Looking back now, I see it as the first step in my strong support for equal rights—for women, for minorities, for anyone who is seen as other.
Sora Frankel, 1931 and Ellen Kahan, 1955
My mother and I were excited to recall our b’not mitzvah. I am a 79-year-old woman who became a bat mitzvah in 1955, at age 13. But my mother, Sora Hinder Frankel, is 102 and had her ceremony on a Shabbat morning in 1931. My grandmother was determined to have her only child be able to participate equally with the young men. Sora had been studying Hebrew for many years and could read and translate the prayers. The rabbi was skeptical, but after testing her he not only agreed, but the congregation thought it might be an incentive for other young women.
As I approached my 13th birthday, I fully expected to have a bat mitzvah. My parents enrolled me in the pre-bar/bat mitzvah class. We already knew Hebrew and some of the prayers, but learned the prayers before and after the Torah and haftarah portions and, of course, the Torah portion. My great uncle spent time translating the portion so that I would know what each word meant. I learned the melodies for the blessings from sheet music and the portion from recitation.
Annette Radick, 2021
I became an adult bat mitzvah last year at age 77. I have some similarities to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She grew up in Brooklyn in the Midwood section, and so did l. Her family attended Orthodox synagogues when she was a child, and so did mine. She wondered as a young girl why boys got to have a bar mitzvah at age 13, while there was no comparable ceremony for girls, and so did l. It is said that these struggles may have shaped her into the gender equality advocate that she became. They certainly affected me. As I grew up, I challenged my upbringing and explored a number of paths including Reconstructionist Judaism, Chabad teachings and Renewal Judaism. An eye-opening mission to Israel helped affirm my Jewish identity. After I retired, Temple Emanuel’s newsletter featured an article about an adult b’nei mitzvah class starting. At first I didn’t realize what was drawing me to that class, but I realized that I wanted to put to rest the gender issues that had been with me throughout much of my lifetime.
Anne Solar, 1948
My father heard about a Reform temple that was beginning to hold bat mitzvahs. Although Orthodox in his affiliation, he considered himself a modern man. He thought girls should be afforded the same religious privileges that boys had, and he decided he wanted me to be bat mitzvah at age 12. He proceeded to drop our family membership at the Orthodox synagogue and become a member at the Reform synagogue. I was enrolled in the bat mitzvah class along with nine other girls. We learned and studied the same Hebrew texts that the boys learned from.My bat mitzvah was a joyous event just as it was for the boys, but this was one of the first occasions for girls and perhaps more meaningful. At the end of the year, my father dropped his membership at Temple Judea and rejoined his original Orthodox synagogue. He had accomplished his goal of having his daughter having a bat mitzvah. I was so proud of my father for being a man who believed in feminism.
Adrian Richfield, 2021
My bat mitzvah took place in August of last year, when I had just turned 78. After a year of postponement because of Covid-19, we were finally able to stand on the bimah, receive our tallit and read from the Torah. The event was three years in the making, and we all had different reasons. We ranged from our 50s to our 80s, and were all raised in different Jewish circumstances. This tradition is a significant rite of passage. Jewish people promised to teach the wisdom of the Torah to their children from generation to generation. For me, this was part of our rich heritage, and to become a part of that was wonderful.My father, Joseph Richfield, escaped from Vienna at age 18, leaving behind his whole family that would subsequently die in the Holocaust. I felt I was especially honoring my parents on this day.
Patti Singer, 1970s
My bat mitzvah turned me away from Judaism. In the early 1970s, girls were paired for their bat mitzvah. They led part of the service, read Torah and haftarah, but did not give a d’var Torah. We could not fully speak for ourselves. Instead, the rabbi spoke our thoughts, feelings and ambitions in his sermon. In preparation, I met with the rabbi of my Reform congregation. During the conversation, he asked what I wanted to be. A sportswriter, I told him.
The day of my bat mitzvah, I led my part of the service with confidence. Then the rabbi spoke. He did not utter one word of what I told him. Instead, he said how my bat mitzvah partner and I would make “wonderful wives and mothers.” I sat, stunned. This day was about me becoming a woman in the eyes of Judaism, but Judaism did not see me. Now, when I see a girl becoming a bat mitzvah, I think back to the debacle of my own. When I listen to a male rabbi talk about the young woman on the bimah, I pray that he actually listened to her, and that what he’s sharing with the congregation reflects her truth, not his ignorance.
Barbara Brown, 2005
On June 3 and 4, 2005, 16 adult women of Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage, Alaska, became b’not mitzvah. Our Torah portion (which we divided amongst ourselves) was b’midbar. We came to be counted. We painted our own silk tallit, bound our own handmade books of our d’vrei Torah, learned how to tie tzitzit and practiced our Hebrew and our chanting. Looking over my files and memories of the experience, I am moved all over again.
Tula Kurtz, 1958
I never thought of myself as a trailblazer! That changed while preparing for my adult bat mitzvah as part of a learner’s service at Temple Emanuel. I realized the significance of my bat mitzvah almost 65 years earlier. I was the first in my family and the first girl to be a bat mitzvah at Har Sinai Temple in 1958. The honor of reading Torah was lost on me at age 13. Although I don’t remember my inner thoughts, it was probably to please my parents and Bubbe.In retrospect, I see it became the touchstone for my being an active participant in my Jewish community, including being a life member of Hadassah. I hope that my example will inspire the young attendees to continue on the path of commitment and lifelong learning as Jews.
Vivian R. Jacobson, 1947 and 2017
My first bat mitzvah took place in December 1947 at the Anshe Emet Synagogue, when I was 12. This was quite an unusual experience for girls to have a bat mitzvah, as in many other congregations, only boys were allowed to have a bar mitzvah.I heard about the 70th anniversary celebration of this event in a person’s life from a member of my congregation at Temple Beth Shalom, from Psalm 90, verse 10: “The days of our years are three-score and ten/ Or even be reason of strength four-score years/ Yet is their pride but travail and vanity/ For it is speedily gone and we fly away.”At the age of 82, I stood before my congregation and recited my entire haftarah portion of Shabbat Hanukkah and gave a speech on the meaning of my great Jewish education. It was an all-time wonderful experience in my life.
Marla Zarrow, 1955
I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on a sweet time through the looking glass of decades. Born on the full moon of Ta’anit Esther, I celebrated my bat mitzvah at age 12, a month before my—and Hadassah’s birthday—March 18. I barely recall my parasha or dvar Torah. Most memorable was my parents’ generous gift, the Jewish Agency Bar/Bat Pilgrimage visit to Eretz Yisrael. The Six-Day War broke out pre-departure, and half the parents pulled their children out of the trip. Those who went were intriguing, funny, lively, atypically typical 13-year-olds.From the first moments, the trip felt unique. That first night in our children’s village, we quickly gathered in an underground “safe space”—a miklat. We traveled the country from the brilliance of Tel Aviv to the mysteries of Haifa. I’m grateful for it all, including that we were not “protected” from the still-raw horrors and sorrows of the different people’s war wounds. As some of the first visitors at the Western Wall, I found myself stunned and imbued with a new depth of spirituality and religion intertwining while, wherever we traveled, Yerushalayim shel Zahav wafted through the hot, salty air. That unique summer was when I truly became a bat mitzvah, stepping over the rocky shoals and, as in Miriam’s Song, joining hands with our previous generations and those to come.
Robin (Leonard) Nafshi, 1973
I became a bat mitzvah in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War. I remember my rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Zadonowitz, adding special prayers for Israel. I was part of a traditional Conservative congregation. Boys became bar mitzvah on Shabbat morning, girls on Friday nights. We chanted haftarah, not Torah. I was very angry at different, lesser opportunities for girls. I moved away from my Judaism until college, when I dabbled a bit. Later, when I found Reform Judaism, I found a home.
Carol Forbes, 1971
My father was a career Army officer and moving around was our life. In 1965 we were stationed in Augsburg, Germany, and we went to the local synagogue. We were approached by many elderly women who just wanted to touch my sister and me. They had tears of happiness in their eyes. I was too young to understand until later in my life of the great significance of attending a synagogue that was once in the bastion of Nazi Germany. The rabbi was kind and helped us learn our Hebrew names. I remember him telling me that everything had a prayer. He ignited a spark in me that still burns to this day. I realized I belonged to generations of Jews who came before me.
In Fort Bliss, Texas, my Dad and I met with the rabbi to see if he would accept me joining the bar/bat mitzvah program at the synagogue. I was in fifth grade, and Rabbi Fierman was so very, very nice to me. With special tutoring I would be able to join in. On a beautiful day in May 1971, I became a bat mitzvah. It was everything I could have asked for. I will never forget my time spent there, the friends I made and the incredible world of living in a Jewish community.
Harriet Vogel, 1953
In 1953, just hours away from my 13th birthday, I became a bat mitzvah. What a proud and exciting time that was. Becoming a bat mitzvah was not that common. Fast forward 67 years later. I planned with great anticipation to chant from the Torah in Israel to celebrate my 80th birthday with my family and friends as witnesses. Now that I’m only a year away from my 83rd birthday, I hope to be called to the Torah at Temple Beth Am in Jupiter, Fla., for my second bat mitzvah. (It has been a custom to celebrate the occasion at 83, as we gratefully reach 13 years after the so-called given three score.)
Maxine Belson, 1963
I attended the Chelsea Hebrew School in Massachusetts and am proud to say I was in the first bat mitzvah class in 1963. All of us, as Jewish women, have come so far in our opportunities and quest for involvement in Jewish ritual. The road has been long, yet it is paved and continues in our hearts and in our practice.
Barbara Joyce Cohen, 1993
I was standing on the bimah in May 1993 at the age of 57. Yes, I was the first member of my secular birth family to be bat mitzvah, but the last of our family to reach this honor. I may have been a late bloomer, but this achievement meant a great deal to me and I accomplished it. It is my desire that all the women in our family share the same love for Israel that I feel.