I had been thinking about my eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah for a long time. We belong to a Modern Orthodox shul in Cape Town, South Africa and were one of the first families in Cape Town to have a simchat bat (baby daughter celebration) for our daughter. She was born two days before Rosh Hashanah, and we named her on chol hamoed (the intermediary days of) Sukkot. A good friend of ours came up to our flat to sing her down to shul, and it was really a joyous event. One of the longstanding members of the shul came up to me during the simchat bat with a huge smile on his face, and said “It was like a brit (circumcision ceremony) but without the tears.”
Yael goes to a small religious school in Cape Town and was not very enthusiastic about leyning for her bat mitzvah. None of her peers would be doing it and it involved a lot of extra work. Many of my friends tried to discourage me from ‘forcing her to do something that she wasn’t obligated to do,’ but I felt strongly that this was the time in her life when she needed to learn this skill (just as her brothers would be doing when it was their bar mitzvahs). Through word of mouth I found a skilled and engaging orthodox woman to teach her.
I started speaking to the Rabbi and Rebbetzin of our shul about Yael’s bat mitzvah approximately a year before the event. Unfortunately, our Rabbi did not agree to Yael leyning (chanting Torah) on our shul premises, even in a women’s-only service in the shul hall. While commonplace in many other countries, a woman had never leyned before at an Orthodox minyan in Cape Town.
I was deeply disappointed but at the same time it offered me an incredible opportunity to do what I really wanted to do. I hadn’t been thrilled with the idea of having a women’s only Torah reading as it would exclude my husband, brother and father, and to some extent my sons. I also wanted a ‘halakhic’ (complying with Jewish law) Torah reading. If Yael read to a group of women and the Torah reading was not part of a ‘halakhic minyan,’ it would not be a mitzvah. I wanted something more inclusive that symbolised Yael entering the community. I began investigating the concept of a hosting a halakhic mincha service with a Torah reading led by women. Dina Brawer at JOFA was an invaluable resource.
Yael’s bat mitzvah was wonderful and meaningful. We started off with a challah bake on the Thursday evening, and on Shabbat morning Yael delivered a dvar torah from the front of our packed shul. It was important to us to celebrate with our shul community and not to separate ourselves from them, and so we sponsored a kiddush brocha (honorary) lunch at the shul.
That afternoon about 200 people (including members of our shul) congregated at an overflowing house used as an office by the Union of Jewish Women. We used colourful balloons as a mechitza (divider). The friend who had sung Yael down to her simchat bat was the chazan at the mincha service (two rabbis that he asked had said he could go ahead and lead the service, another said that if he did he ran the risk of not being allowed to daven for another shul in Cape Town). The Torah service was led and run entirely by women. Yael leyned with such confidence and pride that many a tear was shed.
After the leyning there was spontaneous joyous dancing on the women’s side of the mechitza. One of the biggest compliments I received was that the experience was so natural and uncontrived. Even more exciting were the number of young girls who expressed how they wanted to leyn for their bat mitzvahs when the time came. The obstacles we faced when trying to conceptualise Yael’s bat mitzvah created the opportunity to find a creative and satisfying solution.
After the service we went to our home for a seudah shlishi (third meal) in our enormous sukkah accompanied by amazing singing and Yael led havdallah as Shabbat came out.
Speaking to Yael after the event she told me how proud she was of how she had read. One of the most memorable aspects of the process was having my other four young children around the dining room table on a Sunday morning listening to Yael practicing her trop (cantillation). Both the boys and the girls were so filled with enthusiasm and kept telling me that they couldn’t wait to have the opportunity to learn to leyn.
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This article originally appeared in My Jewish Learning on December 14, 2016.