It's Actually a Pretty Big Deal: Girls' Narratives of Contemporary Bat Mitzvah

Dec. 06, 2013

Source: Ma'yan


In 2009, Ma'yan's second cohort of Research Training Interns decided to find out how Bat Mitzvah is experienced and understood by girls today. The Research Training Internship (RTI) is grounded in the principles of Participatory Action Research, which means that we conduct research as a collaborative, intergenerational team researching with Jewish teen girls instead of on them. Using an online survey and a novel research method (asking participants to write endings to fictional Bat Mitzvah-related scenarios), we gathered data from pre- and post-Bat Mitzvah girls in the Tri-State area.


This full report, "It's Actually a Pretty Big Deal: Girls' Narratives of Contemporary Bat Mitzvah" presents the findings of this study, focusing on four themes that emerged from survey participants' narratives: Bat Mitzvah as a Source of Pride and Pressure; Bat Mitzvah as a Social and Interpersonal Experience; Bat Mitzvah as a Spiritual and Cultural Experience, and Bat Mitzvah as Performance and Expression of Femininity. The report concludes with recommendations for educators, parents, and other adults whose work and lives connect them to Jewish youth who are experiencing contemporary Bat Mitzvah in their own ways.


Girls ages 11-15 in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were invited to participate in an online survey about “Jewish girls’ attitudes and experiences related to Bat Mitzvah.” As the survey was fairly long and writing-intensive, a $5 Amazon gift card was offered as a reward for completion. Of the 108 who initiated the survey, 46 did not complete it and were eliminated from the analysis. Four other responses were omitted from analysis because they did not meet the inclusion criteria (they lived outside the tri-state region or did not meet age requirements).


In total, 58 responses were included in the analysis. Of these, 37 were post-Bat Mitzvah, representing nearly 2/3 (64%) of the sample, while the remaining 21 (36%) were still approaching their Bat Mitzvah. While ages ranged from 11-15, the mean age in our sample was 13.2 years. The vast majority of participants came from New York (41, or 71%), while 15% (8) lived in New Jersey and 5% (3) in Connecticut. Compared to the general Jewish population,
our sample included a higher proportion of girls identifying as Orthodox. Our survey respondents were nearly evenly divided among Orthodox (16, or 28%), Conservative (14, or 24%), and Reform (12, or 21%), with 5% (3) identifying as Reconstructionist, and the remaining 13 (22%) divided amongst “Cultural Jew,” “Just Jewish,” “Other,” and “Not Sure.”


We hope that parents, clergy, and educators will recognize in this report the depth and complexity with which girls engage the Bat Mitzvah experience. Through the process of Bat Mitzvah, girls negotiate between their spiritual development and their secular desires, navigate closeness and competition in their friendships, manage achievement pressure and performance anxiety, encounter their own and others’ assumptions about femininity (including sexualization, modesty, and selflessness), and consider what it means to mature. Such encounters present rich opportunities for conversation with adults who are willing to take girls’ experiences seriously and able to create safe spaces to help them to reflect on their experiences. Approaching with curiosity and openness sends a powerful signal to young people, who can often feel like adults are engaging them in order to assess or correct or school them.


Read the entire report here.

Updated: Jan. 08, 2014