On a recent Sunday morning, a group of bat mitzvah-age girls and their mothers sit together reading and discussing the story of Chana, who, wretched and weeping because she is childless, prays to God for a son.
"Pay particular attention to the verses describing how Chana prayed," educator Marcie Meier tells the group.
These 11- to 13-year-old girls and their mothers are learning about Chana and other female role models in a Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar held at Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. There, in the book-lined beit midrash, for six Sunday mornings, the mitzvot (commandments) and midot (characteristics) of these ancient women come alive through exploring English and Hebrew texts and engaging in arts-related projects such as calligraphy and singing.
Now in its third year, the seminar is one of the most popular offerings of Netivot, an independent Torah study center for women founded six years ago whose name is Hebrew for "pathways." And it is unique in the Orthodox community, where bat mitzvah is neither routine nor ritualized and where organized bat mitzvah classes, for the most part, are nonexistent.
"The seminar is filling in a niche for those who want to make the experience more meaningful," said Irine Schweitzer, founding president of Netivot.
Generally taught once a year, with 10 to 20 girls enrolled per class, the program affords mothers and daughters special time together. It also introduces the girls to peers from other schools, allowing them to view bat mitzvah as a more universal experience.
Additionally, Schweitzer says, the seminar provides the girls with a historical connection between them and the women who came before them and with the knowledge that they are carrying on an important legacy.
"We learn from Shmuel's mom [Chana] that you whisper when you daven and say the words to yourself. I didn't know that," says Nava Bendik, 11, who is taking the class with her mother, Alisa.
Meier adds that you are supposed to pray with kavanah (intention) and that these laws refer specifically to the Shemoneh Esreh prayers or Amidah.
During this class, the girls also learn how to write words of prayer in calligraphy, with the help of artist Rae Shagalov.
"Talent sometimes comes from interest rather than strength," Shagalov tells them, explaining that her enthusiasm for calligraphy was sparked when she wanted to copy Torah.
In addition to Chana, the girls and mothers learn about Sarah, Miriam, Devorah and Ruth, and take part in candle making, dancing, singing and learning about tikkun olam (healing the world). Also, one Thursday evening they visit the nonprofit organization Tomchei Shabbos, where coordinator Steve Berger gives a warehouse tour and puts them to work assembling boxes of Shabbat food for needy Jewish families.
And for the last class, the girls select and interview a female role model -- usually a teacher, mother or another relative -- and present the findings to the class.
"You're supposed to learn before your bat mitzvah and that's happening," says Jessica Gittler, 11, who is participating with her mother, Naomi.
These girls are all planning to have a bat mitzvah, but what constitutes that rite of passage varies greatly in the diversity of the Orthodox community. Many girls do nothing or have a small party. Others write and present a d'var Torah in synagogues such as Young Israel of Century City or at a family celebration. And a few actually lead a service and chant Torah, an option at Shirat Chana, the women's monthly prayer group at B'nai David-Judea Congregation.
"While girls pretty much universally have some kind of celebration, I think the piece of it that's become more prominent in the last couple of decades is the learning they bring to it and the public role in sharing it," says Luisa Latham, an educator and Netivot board member.
Bat mitzvah preparation is traditionally done one-on-one with a rebbetzin or teacher (boys in the Orthodox world also learn individually with a rabbi or teacher), but supplementary learning programs, such as Netivot's Seminar, are beginning to appear.
At Young Israel of Century City, now in its second year, Ruchama Muskin, educator and wife of Rabbi Elazar Muskin, teaches a two-part bat mitzvah workshop on laws and responsibilities pertaining to women. She also incorporates hands-on projects such as baking challah.
The girls in Netivot's Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar plan on doing some additional learning with a rebbetzin or teacher and on preparing a d'var Torah. They also intend to do a chesed (lovingkindness) project for their bat mitzvah. Nava Bendik, for example, with the help of family and friends, is knitting scarves and donating them to an Israeli orphanage. She hopes to collect 70.
Schweitzer believes that the mothers who themselves enjoy and seriously engage in learning are the ones encouraging their daughters to have more meaningful b'not mitzvah. She hopes to see even more movement in this direction.
But what is unusual in this program is the opportunity for mothers and daughters to learn jointly.
"This was not around in my time," Marcie Meier says. "The idea of mothers and daughters studying together and taking life a little bit deeper is a welcome part of growing up today."
And it's not only the mothers who appreciate it.
"It's really cool learning with my mom," says Leanne Bral, 13, the daughter of Evana. "Sometimes she knows more than I do and sometimes I know more."
For more information on Netivot and the Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar, visit www.netivot.org or call (310) 226-6141.
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