Netivot, the women's Torah study institute, will begin a program next month on a subject not often associated with Orthodoxy: bat mitzvah.
Beginning Nov. 16, Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills will host a "Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar," in which girls ages 11-13 and their mothers are invited to explore aspects of being a Jewish woman through text study, creative expression and areas of social action.
Educator Marcie Meier will lead the six-week course, joined by specialists who will facilitate projects in music, drama, art and dance. In addition to female characters in the Bible, seminar participants will discuss historical and personal role models.
Although Meier recognizes that "there's always been a more public role for young men ... there's no reason girls shouldn't achieve as much as boys in Judaism."
Attaining the age of bat mitzvah, Meier told The Journal, involves "growing into a more responsible role in Judaism" -- not just fulfillment of commandments incumbent on women such as lighting Shabbat candles but also saying daily prayers and carrying out acts of chesed (lovingkindness), what Jews often refer to as tikkun olam (social action).
Text study, Meier said, allows girls to understand their responsibilities as adult Jews "on a deeper level." Orthodox from birth, Meier embraced the importance of study for girls as a young adult after reading an essay in an Orthodox journal in which a woman wrote, "Women sometimes confuse motherhood with washing floors.... Anyone who can study should study."
At Beth Jacob, girls celebrate their coming of age as Jewish adults by offering to the congregation a d'var Torah, or commentary, on the weekly Torah portion, though, consistent with traditional practice, they do not lead prayers or read from Scripture.
But Steven Weil, Beth Jacob's rabbi, downplays the "public performance" component of bar mitzvah as a latter-day American phenomenon. For centuries, he said, bar mitzvah was nothing more than a boy being called to recite Torah blessings on a Thursday morning.
To Weil, the close study of text and Jewish values that leads to the d'var Torah is the core of the rite of passage for girls and boys.
"Our goal is that the focus is on a real, substantive intellectual growth experience," he told The Journal, "learning for six to 12 months with a first-rate mentor."
Weil cites Meier as such a mentor, someone knowledgeable in Bible, rabbinic texts and traditional practice. A product of Los Angeles Jewish day schools, Meier, 51, attended Stern College for Women in New York and UCLA. She has prepared girls to deliver divrei Torah at Orthodox congregations and at non-Orthodox synagogues such as Temple Beth Am.
Michelle Rothstein, a seventh-grader at Pressman Academy in Pico-Robertson, has been working with Meier since last year to prepare divrei Torah for her bat mitzvah celebrations this month at Beth Jacob and at Beth Am, where she will also lead a weekday service.
With Meier, Rothstein explored Torah in both Hebrew and English.
"She knows a lot, and she's really nice," Rothstein said of her teacher.
Meier is looking forward to working with mothers and daughters together.
"For some mothers, it will be a first opportunity to study things they didn't have an opportunity to study as they grew up," she said.
She also sees it as a chance for women to spend "quality time" with their middle-school daughters.
Netivot (Hebrew for "paths"), founded in 2000, opens its fall schedule on Nov. 2 with "Weaving Beauty Into Our Everyday Lives," an afternoon-long program combining Torah study with interactive arts workshops. All of Netivot's programs are open to women at all levels of knowledge and from all Jewish denominations.
The seminar is "really going to be able to reach all levels," Meier said. "It's such a positive thing to bring our girls into the next step of Judaism."