Surrounded by proud family members and supportive friends, the b’nei mitzvah who came to the bima at Scarsdale’s Shaarei Tikvah synagogue during three recent Shabbat services chanted Haftorah, read from the Torah, led Shacharit services and delivered commentary on the week’s Torah portion.
Unlike the young women who usually celebrate this rite of passage milestone at this Conservative congregation, the 40-plus women who participated in these ceremonies did so under the doting gaze of husbands, children and even grandchildren.
Recognizing their accomplishment, Shaarei Tikvah will honor these women at the annual gala, which will take place June 6.
“It’s recognizing how significant their accomplishment is to Shaarei Tikvah,” said Rabbi Daniel Schweber. “It’s a way for them to have their party.”
What many 12 and 13-year-olds take for granted — or complain about — was something sought after and desired by adult women who hadn’t had the chance to have bat mitzvahs when they were girls.
These members of an adult b’nei mitzvah class, who have spent the past two years studying and working towards this goal, originally came together because the Hebrew school director, Ronit Razinovsky wanted a bat mitzvah.
“Growing up in Israel, girls don’t read from the Torah,” said Razinovsky, who was raised as a secular Israeli. “It was only coming here that I learned about a Conservative bat mitzvah. I had a thirst for knowledge. It was to complete something I hadn’t done.”
When Razinovsky mentioned her idea at a Rosh HaShanah service more than two years ago, she never expected that nearly 50 women would want to embark on the same journey.
But they did, many of them inspired equally by Razinovsky’s enthusiasm and dedication and their own inchoate longings to know more about Judaism.
“There were women in the group who had been coming to services for 25 to 30 years, and never quite connected,” said Alison Kellner, one of the volunteer teachers, who is a teacher at Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy. “It was gratifying to see people who were formerly disengaged from the Jewish community and to see that they belonged. Now that they have this window into Jewish knowledge, there is an enormous difference in their enthusiasm and participation. This is their religion also.”
Gloria Fields, co-chair of the synagogue school board, could read Hebrew and have an aliyah, yet she yearned to read Torah. Anita Borkenstein, a member since 2002, appreciated the personal invitation from Razinovsky. “I grew up in a Jewish home that was about family traditions; we never went to shul,” she said.
“When you think that some of these women didn’t read Hebrew two years ago, and they read Torah at their bat mitzvah, it’s just so amazing,” said Carol Richards Mermey, president of the congregation. “It’s turned out a cadre of women who can now participate in services. The value of this experience is that it’s strengthened our community. There are a lot more women who are able to participate in services.”
The group’s independent, self-motivated dynamic also reflects other significant stirrings in Jewish communal life, suggested Rabbi Schweber.
“They did this on their own,” he said. “It’s letting them know they can teach themselves. They can help change services. My hope is that these women stay active and that this culture of self-learning will expand to the men.”
Both the teachers and the women who have studied together for the past two years expect the learning to continue, although the precise format hasn’t been decided.
“It’s been a spiritual experience,” said Razinovksy,who also teaches at the Westchester Solomon Schechter Elementary School. “The beauty of this group is that we have become good friends, really become a community.”
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