by Rabbi Sara Brandes
Brin and Stephanie will both celebrate their Bat Mitzvah this year, but they could not be more different. Stephanie can’t wait. Brin would rather not. Stephanie sees the event as the culmination of her years of Hebrew school, which she has loved for the most part. Brin is doing this because her parents are making her. However, both Stephanie and Brin share their hopes and their fears about the big day in their Rosh Hodesh: It’s A Girl Thing! group.
Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing!, the cornerstone program of Moving Traditions, brings ‘tween and teen girls into micro-communities, facilitated by a trained adult mentor, to engage in Jewish ritual and grow up together. As California Director of Moving Traditions, I observe first-hand a number of the key findings of Ma’yan’s study, “It’s Actually a Pretty Big Deal: Girls Narratives of Contemporary Bat Mitzvah,” as shared by Dr. Beth Copper Benjamin in her article “Standing Up for Girls.” Listening in on our groups, it’s clear that a Bat Mitzvah ceremony, regardless of denomination, are equal parts religious ritual and cultural phenomenon. Its meaning, as Dr. Cooper Benjamin states, “is bound up with the ways girls are negotiating femininity in the crucible of puberty and at the edge of adolescence.”
We join Ma’yan in calling on Jewish organizations to seize the rich opportunity the cultural aspects of Bnai Mitzvah represent. We are proud to help hundreds of Jewish organizations to do this with our programs Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, giving special attention to the unique questions and challenges girls and guys face in adolescence. We help teens to think beyond the restrictive gendered expectations they encounter on social media and in video games, where they spend increasing amounts of time. Through our work, we see that when we give teens a safe, open and approachable space to wrestle with the questions that matter most to them, they are eager to do so with the input of a respected adult, drawing wisdom and guidance from Jewish tradition.
Too many educators in Jewish institutions describe teens as disinterested and apathetic. Yet, in facing the prospect of standing in front of ones peers at a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they are anything but! To the contrary, the ritual as it is constructed raises those questions that are at the heart of adolescence; “Who am I?” “How do I want to present myself and be perceived by my peers and my community?” “What matters most to me?” “How can I find my voice, and how can I share it?” These are questions that teens negotiate within the context of their social lives, drawing conclusions based on the gendered messages they are constantly receiving. In our work we find, these are the conversations that our teens are most eager to have when we create the space for them.
Moving Traditions congratulates Ma’yan on the release of this important research, and commends the model they used, empowering girls in 9th-11th grades to conduct research under Dr. Cooper Benjamin’s direction. Their work allows the Jewish world to hear the voices of teen girls. At Moving Traditions, we see the power of conducting conversations like these in the context of tight-knit circles of teens, so that statements like “It’s not only a Bat Mitzvah, it’s my Bat Mitzvah! It’s my day to show my friends what I’ve got” can be explored alongside those like, “Bat Mitzvahs are about having fun and growing up to be a woman and taking on challenges and acting a different way.” As Jewish educators, we can help teens to form supportive micro-communities and give them the time, space and resources to wrestle with the questions raised by the cultural aspects of the day. In so doing, we allow Bar and Bat Mitzvah to serve as the coming-of-age ritual it is intended to be. At Moving Traditions, we are eager to partner with Jewish educators and organizations whose imaginations are sparked by this report to build supportive, gender specific micro-communities for our teens.
Rabbi Sara Brandes is California Director of Moving Traditions, and a Rosh Hodesh: It’s .a Girl Thing! facilitator. She can be reached at [email protected]