It’s Been Eight Years Since My Bat Mitzvah


My parents have been incredible role models in teaching me what it means to love tefillah and Torah; but while my relationship with tefillah and Torah is unconditional (seriously though, remember that time I dressed up as a Torah for Purim?), it hasn’t been easy. I was ten-years-old at Camp Ramah the first time I ever leined Torah. This, I knew, was for education, not “for real.” I had wanted to be a Torah scholar since the 3rd grade, but at school my 6th grade chumash teacher told me I couldn’t be a Torah scholar because, as she so eloquently pointed out: “Girls can’t be ‘Torah scholars,’ there are only Rabbis and teachers like me.”

At my bat mitzvah, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5769, after months of learning with my mother, I was able to lein in a Women’s Tefillah. (Of course, back then it was difficult to find a Shul that was willing to lend us a Torah, four years later my mother helped start JOFA’s Torah Lending Program.) In the eight years since my bat mitzvah, I have had the opportunity to read Torah on nine more occasions (seven times in a Women’s Tefillah and twice in a Partnership Minyan). It’s been five years since my brother’s bar mitzvah–he lost count of how many times he leined after the first year.

My mother introduced me to the world of Women’s Tefillah, and I fell in love; something about a group of women all praying together, their voices melding into a beautiful melody that for once was in my Soprano range, made my tefillah experience greater than it had ever been. In high school, I made Women’s Tefillah my mission; every Rosh Chodesh I would find myself in an administrator’s office asking them once again not to deny myself and my peers the opportunity to have a women’s Hallel. The last Rosh Chodesh of my Senior year (Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5774) I gave up, my friends and I simply had our own Women’s Tefillah in a private home.

When I got to college I had plenty of options for Friday night davening, I could go to the traditional service run by the Orthodox Community that I was a part of, or I could go to the Partnership Minyan service run by Penn’s Shira Chadasha community. Something about Shira Chadasha drew me in. It felt weird to me at first, that women were leading services in front of the whole kehilla. But I quickly fell in love with the community, despite my initial discomfort and hesitation, because of how it brought me closer to Torah and tefillah. Shira Chadasha became my home on campus, and at the end of my Freshman year, I was asked to be co-chair. Being part of Shira Chadasha causes me to question and reevaluate my Jewish experience and practice on a daily basis, but for as much as it may further complicate my relationship with Torah and tefillah, it has also made these relationships so much stronger.

Recently, I recorded myself singing parts of Hallel that are said aloud by the chazzan/it because this coming Rosh Chodesh Kislev, my sister will be leading Hallel and leining Torah in a Women’s Tefillah for her own bat mitzvah. As I reflect back on my journey with Orthodoxy and feminism in the years since my own bat mitzvah, I often worry that my sister will face similar obstacles in her quest for closeness with to Hashem through Torah and tefillah.

People often joke about how alike my sister and I are (in all fairness, my profile picture has us in the matching “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts we wore to the last JOFA conference), and in many ways it’s true… But I think about how discouraged I was at her age when people told me I couldn’t do or be things with little explanation aside from my gender. There are moments when she impresses me, speaking up with tenacity that seems far beyond her years; whether she is gathering all the younger girls in our community Women’s Tefillah to lead Yigdal with her, planning ways to make Teen Minyan better for her and her friends, or writing an email to her school administrator when she feels jilted because the Torah wasn’t brought to the mechitza for her to kiss.

As she approaches her bat mitzvah my wish for my sister is that she continues to persist in standing up for her ideals and be thoughtful about her Jewish practice. I am optimistic that she will face fewer challenges, and that she will find solace when necessary. I’m proud that she feels empowered, and empowers others, to stand up for herself in her journey to cultivate a more meaningful relationship with Torah and tefillah; my hope is that she will have the opportunity to grow into Jewish adulthood in communities that not only welcome her, but encourage her to do so.

Liat Greenwood is a rising Junior at the University of Pennsylvania where she is studying nursing. At Penn, Liat is the co-chair of the Shira Chadasha community and sits on the Leadership Council for Hillel Board. After finishing her BSN, Liat hopes to continue on to become a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner/Nurse-Midwife. One of Liat’s main areas of interest is the intersection between health, Jewish lifestyle, and halakha; she has been able to integrate her passion into her coursework.

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