More Than Just a Party: Bat/Bar Mitzvah, Then and Now - Lesson Plan for Youth (Grade 5 and up)
This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Taking Risks, Making Change: Bat Mitzvah and other evolving traditions.”
- Sally Gottesman's 1974 letter to the Ritual Committee of Temple Shomrei Emunah, requesting a Saturday Morning Bat Mitzvah
- Letter from Paula Rachlin Gottesman to Ritual Committee of Temple, Shomrei Emunah, 1974
Using the introductory essay for this Go & Learn guide, provide a brief overview of the history of the Bat Mitzvah and how it has evolved.
- Listen to the audio clip of Sally Gottesman reading the letter she wrote to her synagogue's Ritual Committee, or ask a female student to read the letter aloud.
- Then read aloud the letter written by Paula Rachlin Gottesman, Sally's mother. (You can read the letter yourself, or have another student or classroom aide read it.)
- Distribute copies of both letters so visual learners can follow along as they listen, and everyone has the chance to revisit the text.
Questions for discussion:
- What is Sally's main argument? What is her mother's?
- What, if anything, did you find surprising about Sally's letter? About her mother's letter?
- Why do you think Sally and her mother felt this was an important issue? What specific phrases led you to think this?
- What similarities and differences between the two letters do you see? What stood out for you?
- How do you think members of the Ritual Committee would have reacted to the letters?
- How do you think the Ritual Committee's reaction might have been different if only Sally or only her mother had sent a letter?
- In her statement for the Jewish Women's Archive's online exhibit, Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, Sally Gottesman writes, “My letter is the product of my 12-year-old self: I chose not to translate Hillel's quote 'If not now, when?' reasoning, 'If they are on the ritual committee, they should know Hebrew.'” What do you think this tells us about Sally?
In most non-Orthodox congregations today, girls have the same responsibilities for their B'not Mitzvah as boys for their B'nai Mitzvah. (In many Orthodox congregations, the Bat Mitzvah is marked with a special ceremony or celebration.) Yet young people—girls and boys—may still see room for other changes to the Bat/Bar Mitzvah ceremony and experience.
- What ideas do you have for ways the Bat/Bar Mitzvah could—or should—change over time? How could it become more meaningful?
- Why do you think these changes would (or wouldn't be) important?
- (If relevant) Do you think your Bat/Bar Mitzvah experience has affected or will affect your Jewish identity? If so, how?
As an adult, Sally Gottesman co-founded an organization called Moving Traditions, which runs Rosh Chodesh: It's a Girl Thing!, a monthly program for pre-teen and teenage girls to build self-esteem, leadership skills, and Jewish identity. Moving Traditions also has a project called Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age, which collects the stories of women and girls who were the first in their synagogue or community to have a Bat Mitzvah or a new version of the Bat Mitzvah (as was the case for Sally, who was the first girl in her synagogue to have her Bat Mitzvah on a Saturday morning).
Gottesman describes herself as having been a committed Jew and feminist at age 12, following the role of her mother and grandfather.
- How do you think Sally's experience petitioning for her Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah may have influenced her work as an adult?
- What other questions do you have?
Below are two program options. You may choose one or more, depending on the time available to you.
Option 1: Congregation's History
Have students investigate the history of the Bat Mitzvah in their congregation (or community). You may want to interview a longtime congregant, the rabbi, cantor, or school principal. If your synagogue or community has a museum, library, or other historic records/archives, set aside time to take advantage of these resources. Have your students look through photographs, newspaper articles, Shabbat service programs, minutes from meetings, letters, synagogue records, or other items that might help them discover the history of the Bat Mitzvah—and women's roles more generally—within your synagogue. If your congregation is relatively new and/or has never made a distinction between Bat and Bar Mitzvah, you may want to investigate the history of the Bat Mitzvah within the local community instead.
Questions to investigate might include:
- When was the congregation founded? By whom?
- What were women's roles in the synagogue when it was founded?
- What are women's roles now?
- Were girls in the congregation always allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah? If not, when did the first Bat Mitzvah happen?
- What are B'not Mitzvah like at the synagogue now? Do they differ at all from boys' B'nai Mitzvah?
- How have Bat Mitzvah ceremonies at the synagogue changed over time? (Did they start out on Friday nights and move to Saturday mornings? Do girls read from the Torah? Do they give speeches? After Bat Mitzvah, are women allowed to be called to the Torah for aliyot and counted in a minyan? Are some of these questions still being debated within your congregation?)
- Are adult B'nai Mitzvah common at the synagogue? Are they more common among women?
Option 2: Interview
At home, have each student interview an adult Jewish relative or family friend about what it was like to have or not have a Bat Mitzvah. (Examples of possible interview subjects include: a mother who had a Bat Mitzvah, a Jewish grandmother who was not allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah, an aunt who converted to Judaism as an adult and recently became an adult Bat Mitzvah.) Students can use the Bat Mitzvah Interview Questions handout as a guide for their interviews. Feel free to add your own questions, or ask students to brainstorm questions in advance.
For further guidance on conducting an oral history, including tips for additional questions and how to make a recording, visit JWA's oral history how-to pages. You may also want to explore the Jewish Women's Archive's publication In Our Own Voices: Conducting Life History Interviews with American Jewish Women (full text available for download and on Google Books) and our Family History Tool Kit for girls. Students can introduce the project by saying “My class is studying stories about Bat Mitzvah—women who have had a Bat Mitzvah and women who haven't—and I want to learn your story.”
In the class session following their interviews, ask students to break into smaller groups (ideally 4–6 students) to share what they learned. Students should go around and have each member of the group spend 5 minutes saying who s/he interviewed, where and (approximately) when that individual grew up, whether she had a Bat Mitzvah or not, and what that experience was like for her. Each student should also share the most surprising thing s/he learned during the interview. After everyone has had a turn, have each group use a large piece of paper to brainstorm similarities and differences between the experiences of the women they interviewed. With these notes in mind, the group should come up with a list of at least three new things they learned about the Bat Mitzvah experience.
Each group should then select a speaker who will take this list and represent the group. While the remainder of the group stays in their seats, the speaker moves to another group to report. (For instance, the speaker from group A joins group B, the speaker from group B joins group C, and the speaker from group C joins group A.) The speaker then shares what s/he learned with the new group, and in return, the group tells the speaker about the experiences of the women they interviewed. If time permits, have the speaker move to a second group and repeat the exercise. (If you have a small class or are short on time, you can also do a traditional share-out.)
Guide the group in reflecting on the interview process.
- What did you learn that surprised you?
- What new questions do you have?
- How, if at all, did learning about these Bat Mitzvah experiences change the way you are thinking about your own Bat/Bar Mitzvah? (if relevant)