Unforgettable bat mitzvah memories
Bat mitzvah centennialOur readers reflect

Unforgettable bat mitzvah memories

This weekend marks 100 years since the first bat mitzvah was publicly celebrated in the United States. Here are some personal recollections of our readers' own experiences.

Beth Shalom bat mitzvah class of 1964 (Photo provided by Geri Lazarus)
Beth Shalom bat mitzvah class of 1964 (Photo provided by Geri Lazarus)

This weekend marks the centennial anniversary of the first bat mitzvah in the United States. On March 18, 1922, Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City, paving the way for future generations.

Just a few years later, in 1925, the first bat mitzvah in Pittsburgh was celebrated at Congregation Beth Shalom.

During several decades that followed, it remained uncommon for girls to mark this rite of passage, and some women did not celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah until they became adults.

The Chronicle invited its readers to send recollections of their bat mitzvahs to help commemorate this milestone anniversary. Their memories follow. Some have been edited for length and clarity.

Rena Becker (Photo courtesy of Rena Becker)
Rena Becker
I shared my bat mitzvah on a Friday night with friends Randi and Amy. It was at Adath Jeshuran (Margaretta Street) in 1972. We were on the bimah and someone sneezed, and I was so nervous I started to laugh. Cantor Fisch came over and calmed me down and did not admonish me. It was a meaningful ceremony with a lovely oneg Shabbat after.
Heather Benes (Photo courtesy of Heather Benes)

Heather Benes

As a child, I attended Temple Sinai with my family. I started to learn Hebrew until my father changed our affiliation to Rodef Shalom. Rodef Shalom did not teach Hebrew to girls at that time. I attended religious school through confirmation, May 21, 1961, being taught with books written by Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, our head rabbi. I am very proud to say that my confirmation certificate is signed by Rabbi Freehof and Rabbi Walter Jacob, two very prominent Pittsburgh rabbis.

As an adult, I joined Temple David and, through the years, tried several times to learn Hebrew, but it wouldn’t sink in. Then in 2014 I took a class taught by Susan Bortz, and lo and behold, I learned Hebrew. The following year, Rabbi Barbara AB Symons offered an adult b’nai mitzvah class to the congregation. Being an old soul with a young heart, I signed up for it. It was an intense course. We went through the Torah from cover to cover, relearned Hebrew and all about the Jewish religion and Jewish holidays, culminating in our bar and bat mitzvahs on March 12, 2016. I was 70 years old. It was one of the happiest and most rewarding days of my life. A huge thank you to Temple David and Rabbi Symons.

Barbara Berns (Photo courtesy of Barbara Berns)
Barbara Berns
At age 53, I had a twin bat mitzvah. My “spiritual twin,” Inna Kosherovsky, was a refusenik. She was not permitted to leave the Soviet Union nor to have a bat mitzvah … ever.

Sitting in Temple Sinai’s main sanctuary on April 29, 1988, were family and friends, Christians and Jews, Blacks and Caucasians celebrating my special event that had previously been denied to Inna.

Marsha Boswell (Photo courtesy of Marsha Boswell)
Marsha Boswell
I come from a Philadelphia family where girls did not become a bat mitzvah. We were Conservative, and it was the 1950s. I went to Sunday school in one of the places we lived — Michigan — and my brother, three years older, was trained to become a bar mitzvah. I was only 10 and don’t remember much except from pictures.

Much later, after I had two sons (and was married to a non-Jewish man), I decided I wanted them to go to services and to religious school. We joined Dor Hadash in Squirrel Hill and became Reconstructionists. I eventually took Hebrew from Cheryl Klein, their cantorial soloist (who later became a rabbi), but I had no plans to go further.

After a few years, I started attending Temple David services — and immediately joined the choir. Then, with a lot of soul searching, I decided I wanted to do something special for my 50th birthday — become an adult bat mitzvah. I trained with Sharon Leibowitz (z’l), our then-choir director, and with the help of Rabbi Richard Rheins, I became a bat mitzvah. It was a fantastic and defining moment in my life, and I recommend it to any adult who is considering it.

Susan Grossberger Bortz

I became bat mitzvah in September 1978, the first adult female at Temple David to do so. A combination of circumstances prevented me from becoming bat mitzvah at the age of 13, even though I was a fluent Hebrew reader. I wish I could remember what Rabbi Jason Edelstein (z”l) said to inspire me to accept the challenge.

My parsha was Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy, chapter 26). The first two verses tell us to bring our first fruits to the priest, who will then place them in front of the altar of Adonai. The bounty is to be shared with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow.

My d’var Torah stated that although we aren’t farmers, we share our “bounty” with a local food pantry. (Temple David has a food drive between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) We are thankful to be able to do this, as later in the parsha we are told to enjoy — with the Levite and the stranger — the bounty that Adonai has given to us. This certainly resonates today as so many people, here and worldwide, still need a portion of our “bounty.”
I’m proud to be a part of the legacy of females becoming bat mitzvah at Temple David. My husband and I are still members.

Mimi Botkin

I was raised in the 1950s and ’60s in a Conservodox household. A bat mitzvah never entered my mind because we drove to an Orthodox shul every Saturday morning where I never saw a female on the bimah.

One Monday night in 1987, as I was about to leave my adult education class at Temple Sinai, my friend turned to me and asked, “Are you staying for the Hebrew class?” Since I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no, I followed her into the class that would change my life.

The Hebrew class was meant as a preparation for an adult bat mitzvah. We then were presented with our Torah portion, Acharei Mot, and our tutor divided it. One of my lines was, “Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind.” Nechama Lebovitz commented that line also meant that one should prevent a stumbling block from being put there in the first place. I interpreted that as the overarching goal of teaching — my life’s goal and passion. From there was born my d’var Torah.

April 29, 1988, arrived, the long-awaited Shabbat of our b’nei mitzvah. As I ascended the steps to the bimah, my knees knocked and my palms were sweaty. Finally, it was my turn to chant. As I stepped up to the unrolled Torah and took the yad from Rabbi Margie Slome’s hand, I looked out to the first row of the congregation, where I saw the faces of my mother, my sister, and my two daughters, ages 8 and 4.

That day began my life as an authentic Jew.

Kathy Goodman Bouker

I was part of the bat mitzvah class of 1964 at Beth Shalom.

My commitment to becoming a bat mitzvah was fueled by my desire to be part of something no one in my family had achieved. Living in Squirrel Hill was like living in a Jewish bubble. At a young age (maybe 8 or 9) I made a statement to my grandfather that the world was predominantly Jewish. I was promptly corrected and lectured about the history of Judaism. I never forgot that lesson.

It definitely inspired me to beg to go to Hebrew and Sunday school at Beth Shalom with my friends. I don’t think it was until then that I truly understood the meaning of G-d.

That foundation got me through when my 4-year-old was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was not supposed to live. I found myself pulling strength from G-d and remembering those valuable Torah portions. G-d answered my prayers, and today he is 43 years old.

Phyllis Briskman (Photo courtesy of Phyllis Briskman)
Phyllis Briskman
Oct. 9, 1964 was my original “Friday” night “bas” (as we used to pronounce it) mitzvah date at B’nai Israel in the East End. Due to my father’s heart attack, it was also the date my mother and I had to fiercely strike through to a rescheduled one on March 5, 1965.

Until then, the haftorah wasn’t the only lesson I continued to practice. Without even knowing, I was getting invaluable bonus classes in flexibility and mindfulness.

Five months later, when the big day finally arrived, it brought with it a record-breaking 6-inch snowfall for that year, challenging the arrival of many guests.

Joanna Roth Butler (Photo courtesy of Joanna Roth Butler)
Joanna Roth Butler
Dec. 19, 1975, was a crisp, cold Friday night with the stars shining brightly. I was 12. I would not turn 13 for a few weeks. The rabbi said that traditionally girls had had their bat mitzvah at 12 — little did I know then that he was referencing Judith Kaplan!

I had practiced for this night for months with our cantor, and I was ready. The very first time I stood at the pulpit that night, I looked out at the sea of people. I caught the eye of one of my favorite people, a rabbi from camp, who nodded and smiled at me, silently assuring me that I was up to the task. I chanted and spoke clearly and loudly; I used my hands when I asked the congregation to rise and be seated. I was in charge, and I was enjoying becoming a bat mitzvah. I decided that night that I wanted to be a rabbi when I grew up, and that was my life’s goal for many years.

Obviously, that did not happen, but I have no regrets.

Florence Chapman (Photo courtesy of Florence Chapman)
Florence Chapman
Having a bat mitzvah ceremony, although possible in my liberal Conservative congregation, was unusual. Few girls went to Hebrew school, and fewer had a bat mitzvah celebration. Those who did led the Friday night service rather than the one on Saturday morning.

I attended Sunday school from kindergarten (maybe even pre-K) until the age of 15, at which time I was confirmed. Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who was the officiant at my confirmation, was Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s husband.

I did not know Rabbi Eisenstein well since he had been at Anshe Emet less than a year, but I do remember my confirmation with joy.

My participation in the service was to have an aliyah, blessing the Torah both before and after a section reading. In 1955, this was an unusual task given to a female — but my congregation was at the forefront of including women as equals.

The most memorable part of my confirmation, other than the white dress that was purchased for the ceremony, was the inclusion of the cantata “What is Torah?” written by Judith Kaplan Eisenstein and the rabbi. The lines I always remember are: “Torah is the land, the soil, Mother Earth, Eretz Yisorel,” said in rhythm.

Ann Cohen
My bat mitzvah was a special day. I was involved and witnessed the 16 ladies (my big sisters) engage in their studies, while I was studying for my conversion to Judaism. I then decided that my next step after my conversion would be studying for my bat mitzvah. This, of course, was strongly supported by Rabbi Symons. While very challenging, I thoroughly enjoyed my studies with classmates Rebecca Abrams, Heather Benes, Barb Scheinberg and Phil Raithel. The support we gave each other was invaluable. On that special day, I was honored to read the Torah, witnessed by my loving husband, Allen, and my Temple David extended family.

Temple Sinai adult b’nai mitzvah class of 2017, including Laura Fehl, front row, far left (Photo provided by Aya Betensky)
Laura Fehl
I had the honor of celebrating my bat mitzvah with 14 other Temple Sinai members, the majority of whom were women, some old friends and some new friends, on June 9, 2017 — a month before I became president of Women of Temple Sinai. While it was not your typical b’nai mitzvah experience, it was a celebration I shared with my daughter, my son-in-law, friends and the entire Temple Sinai community — stepping up to read Torah and lead services, along with a dinner and an unforgettable festive celebration. Our entire Temple Sinai community worked on creating this amazing celebration. My adult b’nai mitzvah group picture shows up on Facebook as a perpetual memory.

The most special part of my experience was wearing the same tallis my daughter wore at her bat mitzvah in May 2009.

The parallel was that I had first been introduced to Judaism at around the age of 13 in an unconventional way through three Jewish women embracing my mother and my family during a very challenging time in our lives. It made such an impact on me that I chose to embrace Judaism myself as a young adult.

Entering the sacred space of Judaism and embracing the Jewish traditions from the start, the adult b’nai mitzvah experience solidified my lifelong commitment to Judaism. A rite of passage in standing up and taking my place within our community was one of the most impactful Jewish experiences I have had in my 30-plus years as a Jew.

It was truly an honor to stand with my adult b’nai mitzvah class in front of my congregation. This memory will always hold a special place in my heart.

Barbara Fisher, second from left (Photo courtesy of Barbara Fisher)
Barbara Fisher
We had a bat mitzvah — six of us together — celebrated on erev Shabbat because on Shabbat morning Torah was read, and females were not permitted to handle the Torah. Still, it is an honor that I will remember forever; and now I revel in the fact that women can not only handle the Torah but can read from it and lead from it as well.

Susan Kershner Forrest (Photo courtesy of Susan Kershner Forrest)
Susan Kershner Forrest
My family were members of Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, in the late 1960s and early 70s when we lived in Moon Township. At the time, my brothers and I were the only Jewish kids in our elementary school, so I actually liked going to Sunday school to hang out with other Jewish kids. However, girls were only permitted to have their bat nitzvah on Friday nights by leading the Shabbat service. Boys were expected to lead the Friday night service, the Saturday morning service and read from the Torah. My parents (Miriam “Mim” & Seymour “Sy” Kershner) did not want to accept this inequality, so they spoke out. As a result, I can proudly say that I was the first girl to be treated equally, breaking this glass ceiling!

Samantha Lyn Fisher Friedeman (Photo courtesy of Samantha Lyn Fisher Friedeman)
Samantha Lyn Fisher Friedeman
Although the actual day of my bat mitzvah at was a blur, I have many memories of the preparations for that day. I remember my Torah lessons with Mrs. Bortz and frantically practicing on the bus to and from school on lesson day. I remember lying on the living room floor listening over and over to my haftorah trying to learn the melody. I remember shaking in fear during final practices with Rabbi Edelstein hoping that I had prepared enough and was making him proud. I remember invitations specially made by a temple member, ordering personalized candy jars from Contain-It, buying violets for my centerpieces and a pleated purple dress that I loved. It was a hard year of preparation and it took many temple friends to pull it off. I was very nervous but also very proud to become a bat mitzvah just like my Mother before me.

Audrey Glickman (Photo courtesy of Audrey Glickman)
Audrey N. Glickman
On Jan. 2, 1970, I became the second bat (“bas”) mitzvah ever at Orthodox congregation B’nai Emunoh in Greenfield, in our spiffy new prayer space, built with a large egalitarian center seating section for families to sit together regardless of gender.

It was Friday evening, and I led portions of the service, and also chanted an edited version of the haftarah for Parashat Shemot. When it came time to give my speech — written for me by Rabbi Joshua S. Weiss (of blessed memory) and mandatorily memorized — I hopped back up onto my two telephone books behind the shulhan, and launched into what I was to say.

By the second sentence, I could hear Rabbi Weiss behind me, upstage on the bimah on one of those large chairs, stage-whispering “SLOVE-er…. SLOVE-er…. SLOVE-er….” I had no idea to whom he was speaking, nor what he was saying.

I finished reciting my speech without forgetting any of it, including thanking my grandpa for being there even though I knew he wasn’t coming back from Israel for this event, but Rabbi Weiss said I had to say it.

It wasn’t until three days later that I realized that the ever-patient Rabbi Weiss had been speaking to me. He had been advising me to recite SLOWER.

Alaina Goldberg (Photo courtesy of Alaina Goldberg)

Alaina Goldberg

I had always known I wanted to become a bat mitzvah throughout my time in the Weiger Religious School — and because both of my parents are b’nai mitzvahs. The fact that some women before me were unable to become bat mitzvahs was also a driving force behind the reason why I made this decision. I spent more than a year preparing, which included going out of my comfort zone by learning an entire Torah portion that I had to chant on my own. I had the support of my wonderful family, friends, teachers, Cantor Shapiro and Rabbi Symons. They ensured the day was perfect, and it was. I remember my friends, months and years later, asking if I could have another bat mitzvah because it was so cool and fun for them to be a part of. I am also grateful I could intertwine my Indian heritage into my ceremony with the presentation of a sari from my mother’s parents along with the traditional presentation of a tallit from my father’s parents. The day will always be so special to my family and me. I am so proud of myself for becoming a bat mitzvah.

Hillary McIntyre and her grandmother Anita Gordon (Photo courtesy of Anita Gordon)
Anita Gordon
My sister is six years younger than I. When she was offered the opportunity to be a bat mitzvah, I was so jealous. I carried the “wanting to be” into adulthood. Oh, I had the confirmation, but a bat mitzvah is a different honor.

When I was in my 50s, and raising my granddaughter, I looked forward to the celebration of her bat mitzvah. She told me she didn’t want one and bargained with me: “You didn’t have a bat mitzvah, and if you didn’t, I am not either!” It didn’t help telling her it was not the custom in those days. I told her, ‘If I become bat mitzvah, will you?’ Not expecting me to, she said she would. That was the year I signed up for an adult bat mitzvah class at Temple Sinai. I celebrated my bat mitzvah that spring, and my granddaughter did the next year!

Carol Gordon and Rabbi Barbara Symons (Photo courtesy of Carol Gordon)
Carol Gordon
I was raised in a Conservative synagogue where girls did not have a bat mitzvah. I watched both my children celebrate this milestone in their Jewish life. When Rabbi Symons suggested a class for adults, I was a little apprehensive. I knew no Hebrew and wasn’t sure I could learn at my age. Rabbi Symons was so supportive, so I decided to go out of my comfort zone and sign up. I am so glad I did. Over the 16 months that we studied, I learned Hebrew and so much more. A bond formed between all of these ladies that remains today. I was so excited to share my achievement with family, friends and the Temple David community. Thank you Rabbi Symons.

Susan Heller (Photo courtesy of Susan Heller)
Susan Heller
My bat (bas) mitzvah was held on Nov. 22, 1958. I believe mine was one of the first at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. My name at the time was Susan Faith Persky. The rabbi was Aaron B. Ilson. In addition to my parents, Eleanor and Leonard Persky, and younger sister, all four of my grandparents attended, as well as many aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.
It was a glorious day for our family. We had a kiddish luncheon following the service and a kids’ party in the evening.

Geri Lazarus
I am proud to be among the Beth Shalom Class of 1964. Micah 4.3, my haftorah portion — “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks’’ — is well-known. The symbolism of Micah’s words teaches that God wants us to develop creative tools that benefit humankind out of tools misguidedly built to destroy humanity. The meaning of this passage is etched upon my heart. Indeed, my life has been dedicated to developing creative tools as therapeutic modalities which I used while practicing occupational therapy for 30 years. More recently, these words have “divinely guided me” toward designing multi-media textile arts that raise the “spirit.” As many of us have cultivated leadership tools and become role models for peace, I hope this generation of young women takes advantage of the rewarding opportunity to become bat mitzvah.

Cindy Wilder Melamed
My group bat mitzvah at Beth Shalom in 1964 was part of the foundation for my observance of Judaism today — many years later. I learned the parts of Shabbat services and Jewish customs through my studies at Beth Shalom as well as observing holidays with family and maintain traditions today. We all shared in the bat mitzvah ceremony and reading the haftorah. Many of us are still in touch to this day via Facebook and/or long-lasting friendships. After our ceremony, my parents had a party for me at our home with family and friends. As I engage in volunteer work now in retirement, I am reminded of my Jewish upbringing and the mitzvot of giving back to the community.

Rabbi Sara Perman
My bat mitzvah took place on May 22, 1964, in Niagara Falls, New York, on Friday night, as was our custom. We had a student rabbi, Robert Siegel, who was with us only twice a month, so my Hebrew teacher was a soldier, Aaron Bernstein, stationed at Fort Niagara.

I wanted to translate my Torah portion while reading it. With only a reading knowledge of Hebrew, no real knowledge of Hebrew grammar or vocabulary, but with the help and encouragement of my teacher and rabbi, and the little Ben Yehudah Hebrew-English dictionary, I translated my section of the parsha for the service. We used the old Union Prayer Book, so there was little Hebrew in the service. I did not chant the Torah portion. The haftarah was only read in English. My speech was about education, tying it to the haftarah portion about the birth of Samson and the instructions to Samson’s parents on how to raise him.

During the last rehearsal, a bee was flying around in the sanctuary. I remember telling my parents not to kill it, as it might be Jewish. I also remember that I was allowed to wear low heels for the first time at my bat mitzvah. When the rabbi blessed me, since he was still a student, he placed his hands on my shoulders instead of my head. I remember feeling like he was pushing me, yet I was afraid to put one foot back to better balance myself, so I felt like we were battling one another. (This led me later to tell young women in my congregation as they were preparing for bat mitzvah to bring the shoes they were planning to wear at their service to our last rehearsal so they would know how it felt to carry the Torah if they were going to be wearing heels.)

Ruth Reidbord

In 1994, at the age of 63, I decided I wanted to have a bat mitzvah. I was a member of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, so I approached our rabbi, Mark Mahler, and said I would like to study with the goal of becoming a bat mitzvah. I wanted to observe this rite at the Shabbat morning service and was willing to accommodate the Temple’s schedule of available dates. Rabbi Mahler agreed, and I began my study with my tutor, Alva Daffner. Rabbi Mahler and I agreed I would chant the maftir and the haftarah, as was the custom at that time. I would also participate in leading the Shabbat service. I had a number of other requests for the service to which Rabbi Mahler agreed. A date was set for a Shabbat in early September of 1995 when no other bar or bat mitzvah was scheduled.

On that date, wearing the tallit which my husband, Marvin, surprised me with and which I have worn ever since, I led the service and joined the rabbi in singing many of the prayers. More than 75 people came, many from out of town; one special surprise guest was Rabbi Richard Address, then executive director of the Pennsylvania Council of the then U.A.H.C (now URJ). My husband, my daughter Suzanne and my son Todd, were there to support me, as were my dearest friends. I shall never forget that sweet moment. In 2020, I celebrated the 25th year of becoming a bat mitzvah with a prayer at the Saturday minyan at Temple Sinai, of which I am now a member.

Cecilia Rothschild
My brother, David, is just a year-plus older than me. When David had his bar mitzvah, I mainly recall the big fuss that was made. My parents had the basement finished, and we had a big party. I have no recollection of the service. I was a bit puzzled by all of this, and nothing was said to me about it.

I became more involved in Judaism when I lived in Alexandria, Virginia. I moved there not long after going to library school at UCLA. I think it was around 1985. I went to Bet Mishpachah in Washington D.C., as well as to Agudas Achim in northern Virginia. I studied Hebrew. I was asked to chant a prayer by the Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, a part-time rabbi at Bet Mish for High Holy Days. I loved it. Then she asked if I wanted to have a bat mitzvah. Really? She thought I was ready. I did want to do it. I studied with her for close to a year. On April 26, 2003, I celebrated my bat mitzvah. I led the service with the rabbi and chanted all the aliyot for Acharei Mot. That Friday night I had a party for the out-of-town guests, and Saturday an after-service lunch for the congregation, and then a friend had a party at night in my honor. It was a great success, and my friend was delighted. It was quite a weekend. I was surprised how much of my family came from out of town. A definite highlight of my life.

Judith Rothstein

My bat mitzvah was a unique affair. It occurred through our Hadassah group. One of the members got the idea to organize a group of women interested in having one. We ended up with a group of 10 women all in their 70s or 80s. New Light synagogue was so grateful to have this special service with their rabbi.

The ceremony was set up with each participant reading a line out of the Torah and a section of the haftorah in English. It was a lovely and meaningful service. Afterward, we had a delicious luncheon with families and friends.
As the saying goes, better once than never!

Beth Shalom bat mitzvah class of 1962 (Photo courtesy of Carole Stein)
Carole Stein
My bat mitzvah was at Beth Shalom n June 7, 1962. Each of us had a line or a verse. I remember the first two words but nothing else! I believe we were one of the first groups.

Marcia Birner Zied (Photo courtesy of Marcia Biner Zied)
Marcia Birner Zied
I grew up in Squirrel Hill, but now live in Georgia. I decided to have an adult bat mitzvah at 68, and all seven of my grandchildren participated. At 13, I did not know anyone who had a bat mitzvah. March 18 is my birthday. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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