Learning and teaching bat mitzvah: It goes both ways
“But there’s so much to learn!” This is the traditional lament of every bat mitzvah girl I have tutored, and I’m sure it escaped my lips a few times when I was preparing for my own bat mitzvah as well. Between the prayers, the Torah portion, the Haftarah, the d’var Torah, and everything else a bat mitzvah entails, there is no doubt that in becoming a bat mitzvah there is quite a lot to learn. But I would like to offer an alternative framework: the bat mitzvah girl not as a learner, but as a teacher.
Imagine with me how empowering it would be if we told our bat mitzvah students that they are preparing to be teachers of the community. This paradigm shift allows young women to realize that there is more to the Bat Mitzvah than memorizing foreign words and melodies; that everything they stress about learning has a higher purpose, and an impact on those with whom they share this celebration.
In reflecting back on my own bat mitzvah preparation, I remember learning plenty. Mastering Torah trope was one of my first accomplishments. And shortly thereafter, I learned something about my father: he had never read from the Torah. My father, one of my Jewish role models, never had a bar mitzvah. We decided that it would be meaningful for both of us if he could share in some of the celebration at my bat mitzvah service and chant Torah for the first time. And I was to be his tutor.
Together we spent hours on the couch, with photocopies, notes, and a tape-recorder in hand. It was a long process. During these tutoring sessions I learned about myself and about my father, about patience, and relationships, and I gained a new insight on what it means to learn Torah. But one of the most meaningful lessons I internalized during those months was learning how to teach.
Much of the stress bat mitzvah students feel is the pressure of having to show-off new skills in front of large crowds of important people. While demonstrating competency in Hebrew and ritual is an important aspect of the bat mitzvah service, the real way to show you know something is not by performing it, but by teaching it.
After all, a bat mitzvah is a milestone that marks a young woman’s transition to becoming an adult member of the community. And bat mitzvah is about realizing that the potential for leadership and teaching begins right away. Our students learn how to chant texts with the purpose of teaching us insights about their portions.
Students engage in community service so they can become educators about a cause that moves them. Preparing for a bat mitzvah involves learning prayers, so the congregation can learn something new about spirituality through the bat mitzvah’s leadership. From a tradition that values a life-long pursuit of education, it makes sense that bat mitzvah produces not only Jewish learners, but also young teachers.
The Jewish value of transmitting learning and tradition l’dor va’dor, from generation to generation, is a two-way street. We will fully understand this truth when we start seeing bat mitzvah girls for what they are: new teachers in the Jewish community.
Susan Landau studies in the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is a full-time student, a part-time teacher, and a new New Yorker.
Do you live in the Boston area? Join JWA at the November 20th event Today I Am A Woman: Celebrating Bat Mitzvah in Boston and Around the World to discover bat mitzvah stories from around the world, meet other bat mitzvah girls, create a craft project, and explore your own bat mitzvah story with maps, writing, interviews, and art. Also, be sure to check out JWA's most recent project MyBatMitzvahStory.org, a safe and engaging website where girls will explore and express their emerging identities. The site also features free activity guides for eductors and tutors to use in mixed-gender, offline settings.
Do you have a unique bat mitzvah story to share? Contact us.