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Jewesses with Attitude

The Power of the Bat Mitzvah

When I was brought on board at the Lev LaLev Fund in May 2011, I was asked if I could run the bat mitzvah project program. I thought, sure, how hard could it be? I was once a bat mitzvah girl too after all. Yet, a year later, as I was writing about the 15th anniversary of my own bat mitzvah in my e-newsletter to the bat mitzvah girls, I finally realized just how much had changed in that short amount of time.

Back in 1997 all I was worried about was my speech and outfit. My parents took care of the food, venue, invitations, decorations, music, etc. I was lucky to be the oldest in my class, so I didn’t feel like I had to "keep up with the Steins" after attending my schoolmates' grand bar and bat mitzvahs. The one thing missing from all of our "coming of age" ceremonies, however, was a mitzvah project.

Today mitzvah kids, or more often their parents, have to worry about finding a chesed project. I think this is a wonderful way to bring the bar/bat mitzvah back to the true celebration of a pre-teen, who takes upon themselves the responsibility of the mitzvot, including the important: tzedekah, chesed, and tikun olam.

Something I have noticed recently, however, is the trend to do the mitzvah project because it’s just “what’s done.” More focus is placed on the theme decor, walk-in music, slideshow, and finding the perfect goodie to give guests; often the mitzvah project is relegated to the proverbial dark corner of the sparkling, venue space. Don’t get me wrong, the bar/bat mitzvah party has been a boisterous ceremony since I can remember, but it never had to compete with a mitzvah project before.

Perhaps this comes from not recognizing the full potential of a bat mitzvah project, nor fully tapping into the capabilities of our 12 and 13 year-olds. Compounding the situation, in the case of  bat mitzvah, there are no traditional markings to celebrate the day. Boys purchase their first pair of tefillin, learn to lain from the Torah, and can be counted as part of a minyan throughout the Jewish community. Girls, of course, are able to do this in many communities as well. But, I wonder, can the bat mitzvah have its own special traditions?

I was the first woman in my family to ever celebrate an official bat mitzvah. Everything was new, but if I could go back, I would have taken my artistic talents and love of music, and asked my synagogue to let me host a women’s talent show night. Maybe I would have asked for donations from the community for a raffle. Maybe I would have donated the proceeds from the admission and raffle funds to charity. Who can say no to a 12 year-old after all?

Bat Mitzvah Gala Photo
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Décor from the last bat mitzvah of the orphans, sponsored by Lev La Lev with the help of mitzvah project funds. Netanya, Israel 2008.

Don’t believe it’s possible for a 12 year-old to make a difference? I have worked with two bat mitzvah girls who were able to raise $6,000 producing a fashion show. Another was able to partner with her local Jewish federation to raise over $10,000. Yet another raised $1,000 by hosting youth groups during her Passover break. All the funds went to support orphaned girls in Israel.

Some of the bat mitzvah girls I work with will even be joining me as I travel to Israel to celebrate the bat mitzvah of 17 of the orphaned girls who live at the Rubin-Zeffren Children’s Home. Can you imagine the meaning these girls will attribute to their own bat mitzvah efforts in the years to come!?

Every generation sees new growth in how we define “bat mitzvah.” My mother didn’t celebrate the day beyond a regular birthday party. I celebrated the day with my community. Today bat mitzvah girls use their talents to celebrate the day with the global community. What will happen in the next generation?

Will our daughters look back and remember not only how awesome their bat mitzvah was but ALSO be inspired? Will they remember that is was the first time, of hopefully a lifetime, of giving? And will they have recognized that they had the opportunity to really make a difference?

To explore JWA's website for girls, visit MyBatMitzvahStory.org. "Like" MyBatMitzvahStory on Facebook to get daily updates about bat mitzvah, cool Jewish women, and more!

Sheena Levi Bat Mitzvah Photo
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Sheena at her bat mitzvah in El Paso, Texas, June 1997.

How to cite this page

Levi, Sheena. "The Power of the Bat Mitzvah." 30 January 2013. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/power-of-bat-mitzvah>.

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