Changing Ritual, Transforming Community - Lesson Plan for Adults

This lesson plan is part of a larger Go & Learn guide entitled “Taking Risks, Making Change: Bat Mitzvah and other evolving traditions.”

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Using the introductory essay for this Go & Learn guide, provide the group with a brief overview of the history of the Bat Mitzvah and how it has evolved. Encourage participants to offer any additional information they know.

Exploring Letters


Questions for discussion:

  • What, if anything, did you find surprising about Sally's letter? About her mother's letter?
  • What is Sally's main argument? What is her mother's?
  • Which of these arguments did you find most convincing and why?
  • Sally's argument could be described as more idealistic, while her mother's could be described as more pragmatic—representing two models for how to promote change. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not? Do you find these models useful in thinking about the historical context in which the letters were written? Which model speaks to you more?
  • How do you think members of the Ritual Committee would have reacted to each of the letters?
  • Why do you think Sally and her mother felt the Bat Mitzvah in particular was an important issue? What specific phrases lead you to think that?
  • In her statement for the Jewish Women's Archive's online exhibit, Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, the adult Sally Gottesman writes, “My mother's letter, which I love for its depth of feeling, clarity of argument, and its signature, lays out our family's particular story, as well as the larger cultural context.” Any thoughts about the way Sally describes her mother's letter?
  • How do you respond to the way her mother signs her name? How do you think young people today would respond? Your parents?
  • 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?
  • What memories did hearing these letters conjure up for you? (About a Bat Mitzvah experience or otherwise.)


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.

Gender and Judaism

In her letter, Paula Rachlin Gottesman writes “It is a fact of life that women are moving into areas from which they have been traditionally excluded—one of which is the Bimah of a Conservative synagogue...The girls in Montclair are keenly aware of the options allowed the decision makers in their synagogue.”

Look back at the introductory essay for details on some of the “options” that she might be referring to in this letter, including women being counted in a minyan (quorum of ten Jewish male adults required for certain religious obligations) in the Conservative movement (as of September 1973) and the Saturday morning B'not Mitzvah taking place in other synagogues.

Facilitate a conversation with the group about their personal experiences with gender and Judaism. Encourage the group to think not only about Bat Mitzvah, but also about other rituals/customs/laws that might be connected to gender. (Depending on the observance/traditions represented in the group, examples might include observance of time-based vs. not time-based commandments, roles at the Shabbat or seder table, being counted in a minyan, circumcision, education, reading from the Torah, aliyot to the Torah, ritual garb (kippah, tallit, tefillin, etc.), marriage and divorce (agunot), hair covering, niddah/mikveh, LGBT issues, and Judaism as passed only through matrilineal descent.)

  • How did gender affect your relationship with Judaism (or another religion or culture) as a child?
  • How does it affect your relationship with Judaism now?
  • How was your experience different from that of your parents' generation? The next generation?
  • Do you think parents and/or educators should teach girls to recognize the significance of the Bat Mitzvah in particular? Or should there be no differentiation between the B'nai Mitzvah experiences of girls and boys? Should the history of the Bat Mitzvah be taught to both girls and boys?

Below are two program options. You may choose one or more, depending on the time available to you.

Option 1: Write a Letter—Issues in Your Community

In 1974, when Sally was preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah, the American Jewish community was divided on the roles girls and women should play in synagogue life. For example, the Conservative movement, with which Sally's synagogue was affiliated, had recently ruled that women could be counted as part of a minyan—the group of at least ten individuals that make up a formal prayer service—but that it was up to the leadership of each congregation to decide whether to adopt this policy in their own synagogue. Today, most non-Orthodox synagogues have few, if any, rules that prohibit women from doing the same things as men in the congregation.  So what are today's divisive issues in your Jewish community? And do you think it is important to address these issues?

Brainstorm “hot button” issues that your community is still grappling with. Examples might include gay/lesbian marriages, policies for conversion, roles played by non-Jewish members of interfaith families, relationship with Israel, relationship with the local community, membership dues, treatment of employees at the synagogue, and levels of observance. If your group has taken a unique stance on an issue, or made strides on a particular front, you can also reflect on what that has meant for your community.

As a group, choose one issue to focus on for this session. Ask participants to think of themselves as activists in the model of Sally Gottesman and her mother—raising their voices about an issue that is important to them.

Explain that each group will now be writing letters (or creating a poster, video, etc.) that explain their beliefs and how they think the community should respond to this issue. (This can be done individually, or as a group, depending on whether there is consensus on the issue.)

Discuss how members of the group can most effectively let their voices be heard. For instance, letters could be shared with other members of their synagogues/organization/community, or with the leadership such as a Board, committee, or clergy. Letters could be submitted to a group newsletter, or to a local newspaper or magazine as “Letters to the Editor.” They could also be sent out as e-mails, posted on blogs, discussion groups, or shared on social networks. Encourage the group to brainstorm additional ideas.

Now ask each person (or the group) to write a letter explaining her/his belief and how s/he thinks the community should respond to this issue.

  • Why do you think this is an important issue?
  • What is your position on the issue?
  • Explain your position to people who might disagree with you.
  • What aspects of this issue are you unsure about or do you have questions about?
  • How, if at all, have other groups/communities (that you know of) responded to this issue? [Note: you may want to pose this question to the group before starting the letter writing process, so participants can learn of various responses and discuss them together.]
  • What do you think your group/community should do to respond to this issue? (Are there rules or policies that should be adopted?)
  • What can you personally do to help make this happen?

Depending on the dynamic of the group and the issue chosen, you may want to take this opportunity to have members of the group exchange letters or to call on volunteers to share what they wrote. You also could stage a pro/con debate, have a more structured discussion about the issue, facilitate further research on how other communities have dealt with the issue, or bring in guest speakers. As by definition these are sensitive, “hot button” issues, be aware of the situations you set up.

Reflect with the group:

  • What have you learned about this issue that you didn't know before?
  • Has your opinion changed or been strengthened through this process? How, if it all, have you come to better understand others' perspectives on this issue?
  • What unanswered questions do you have? What aspects of the issue remain ambiguous to you?
  • Think back to the letters Sally and her mother wrote. Did writing your own letter affect the way you view their letters? If so, how?

Option 2: Interviews

Participants will have the chance to learn from one another about their own experiences relating to the Bat/Bar Mitzvah. Let participants know in advance that this will be a topic of discussion and that they should be prepared to be interviewed about their own Bat/Bar Mitzvah or the experience of not having one.

Break the group into pairs. You can use the Bat Mitzvah Interview Questions as a guide for the interviews, or brainstorm questions as a group—what do they want to learn about each other's experiences? Ask the interviewer to note down the answers to each question. For further guidance on conducting a more extensive 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).

When the interviews have been completed, guide the group in reflecting on the interview process. Have each pair join with another pair to share what came out of the interviews. Depending on the size of the group, you can then bring everyone together to share and compare, or ask the pairs to continue switching. You can use the following questions to guide your conversation and reflection process.

  • How were your experiences with Bat/Bar Mitzvah similar and different?
  • What did you learn that surprised you?
  • What anecdotes were especially memorable? Why?
  • Think back to our earlier discussion about gender and Judaism. Do you have anything to add now?
  • What new questions do you have?

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Changing Ritual, Transforming Community - Lesson Plan for Adults." (Viewed on March 6, 2021) <>.


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