Jewish communities across North America joined to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the bat mitzvah ceremony on Shabbat, January 29 with Project Kesher.
Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, became the first American girl to have a bat mitzvah ceremony on March 18, 1922 at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the synagogue her father founded. She had no idea that her actions would impact Jewish communal life forever, as she became an unexpected catalyst for change.
As increasing numbers of girls ascended the bimah, girls and women began to expect—and then demand—access to ritual honors and synagogue leadership. The expansion of women’s participation in Jewish life followed, and today, the bat mitzvah is celebrated in various ways across the religious streams.
Far away in Moscow, a group of 22 girls and women from different parts of Russia and Belarus, including six mother-daughter pairs, got a jumpstart on this coming-of-age centennial last month. There’s a New Jersey twist to the story.
Havurat Re’im, a fellowship group based in Teaneck, gave Project Kesher the sefer Torah, the Torah scroll, the women used in the bat mitzvah ceremony, in 2004. Project Kesher then gave it to the Jewish community in Volgograd. (The Jewish Standard ran a story about the Torah’s travels in “Project Kesher’s connections across communities” on October 20, 2016.)
Project Kesher is a progressive Jewish women’s organization; for more than 20 years, it’s been dedicated to renewing Jewish life in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and Russian-speaking communities in Israel. (For more information, go to www.projectkesher.org.) Rabbi Karen Glazer Perolman, the senior associate rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, sits on its board.
More than 20 years ago, Project Kesher initiated the Torah Return Project, bringing sifrei Torah to revitalized Jewish communities in regions that no longer had one. This enabled women and men to learn how to read from the sacred scroll and deepen their experience of Shabbat and festival gatherings
The communal bat mitzvah event began with a Havdalah ceremony on Saturday evening. The next day, participants demonstrated their newly acquired skills. They had learned to chant their verses and the prayers of the morning service, thanks to expert coaching by Rabbi Olya Weinstein, and via two online webinars with Jewish educator and cantor Debi Shoua-Haim, both of whom live in Jerusalem. After months of preparation, the Russian women finally had the opportunity to see and touch the sefer Torah, which had been brought to Moscow from Volgograd by Inna Motornaya, a longstanding Project Kesher leader.
During the ceremony, everyone was honored, called to the bimah by the new Jewish name that each had chosen. Each wore a new Project Kesher tallit, which further heightened the transformative ritual moment.
The bat mitzvah was the first in-person international event after two years of pandemic restrictions, and excitement ran high. It took place in a beautifully decorated room on the 67th top floor of a Moscow skyscraper. On a gloomy winter day, the sun suddenly appeared, brightening the room and adding to the celebratory feeling that infused it.
Comments from a few of the participants illustrate the power of their experience.
Ekaterina Solovyeva said: “I came to the event with some fear, as a pioneer. The event was breathtaking for me — demonstrating my new knowledge and feeling that something new was emerging in my life. I’m like that glass overflowing with wine that we raise during Havdalah. “
Alesya Karetnikova reflected: “Coming up to the Torah was very exciting. Although I study Hebrew, it was still a challenge to learn to read. I felt a closeness to the scroll. Next to us I felt the presence of people who sustain Jewish lifestyles in our families, who empower us with new activities, and who bring women from different cities and countries together. I took the name Rachel-Leah.”
Tatyana Likholetova added: “For me, participation in the bat mitzvah ceremony was not only emotionally intense, but also very meaningful in terms of my women’s identity. I am in my seventh month of pregnancy, and as I came up to the Torah, I was sure that my not-yet-born daughter also was feeling a connection with God at the moment.”
Their comments demonstrate the connections among Jewish women across global communities. From New Jersey to Moscow, meaningful engagement with Torah learning deepens and expands Jewish life from generation to generation.