Over the last 25 years, the Bat Mitzva observation has gradually found its place in the Orthodox community. Alongside the Bar Mitzvah boys' ceremony which has historically revolved around boys’ initiation into active participation in the prayer services – i.e., learning to lay tefillin, counting in a prayer quorum, being called up to the Torah, and leading the services – alongside a festive celebration and meal, the Orthodox Bat Mitzva celebrations have begun to include poetry, dance, art and music as well as building connections to places in Israel, creating family trees and adopting charity or social action projects. Compared to boys, Orthodox girls have many creative options – except for the one option open to boys of counting in a minyan and laying tefillin. Meanwhile, boys have few if any creative options at all. In other words, even as Orthodox girls are being left out of the formal sanctuary, Orthodox boys are being left out of affairs of the heart and spirit. Despite all the societal shifts, boys and girls in the Orthodox community continue to be socialized into vastly different gender roles.
Kehilat Darchei Noam, an Orthodox-egalitarian synagogue in Modi’in, Israel, proposed an innovative solution in which both boys and girls are encouraged to adopt normative forms of participation and leadership along with creative, emotional, individualistic and personal explorations.
This educational program is particularly striking within the context of the synagogue. The prayer format, which maximizes women’s participation in the service within the framework of halakhah, has a partition down the middle and the stand in the center. Both men and women get called to the Torah, from both sides of the partition, lead parts of the service, give speeches, and sit on boards. The adolescent educational program is a perfect opportunity to put ideas of educating for religious egalitarianism into action within a pre-bar/bat-mitzvah format, and to encourage gender equality alongside commitment to mitzvot from a young age.
A committee of parents of the pre-mitzvah children met over the course of two months and built a unique 14-week pre-mitzvah program. The course itself promoted values of cooperation, mutual respect and diversity in the way it was created and implemented. The 90-minute weekly sessions were taught by the parents and synagogue members, according to the topics that most spoke to them, and hosted by different families in rotation. The sessions generally consisted of both text study and learning the Torah cantillation, sending the message that both boys and girls must work on their private-personal religious development along with their public-service religious commitment. These activities were also interspersed with games, exercises, a rabbinical guest speaker and a visit to the Heichal Shlomo Jewish museum in Jerusalem. In addition, the group is now working on a collaborative social action project.
The program committee is following the program, while collecting feedback in order to revise and further develop it in the future. They hope that it will inspire other communities to think about messages of egalitarianism alongside Torah commitment as their children embark on this most important life change.