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At age 12, Sally Gottesman—now a not-for-profit consultant, largely in the Jewish community—was attuned to feminism in ways that other girls at her Conservative synagogue were not.
“I was at an Orthodox day school,” she says, “and I became very aware of gender stuff because boys and girls were separated for Jewish studies classes.”
Gottesman also remembers getting her hands on an early feminist publication, a Response Magazine edition focused on “The Jewish Woman.”
Feeling strongly that she knew as much as the boys did, Gottesman wanted a Saturday morning bat mitzvah, and luckily her rabbi, Jeshaia Schnitzer of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, NJ, was on her side. In the letter he encouraged her to write to the ritual committee, Gottesman requested a change in synagogue policy, adding to her request Hillel’s famous words “Im lo achshav ay ma-tai?” (If not now, when?). However, she did not translate Hillel’s quote, figuring that any upstanding member of a ritual committee should know what it meant.
Her mother, Paula Rachlin Gottesman, also wrote a letter, this one quite forceful in its arguments. One paragraph reads, “Although I recognize the rational, emotional bases to religious practice, I believe that we as Conservative Jews must change those traditions which are odious to large segments of our people and which have no rational, moral justification for their continuation.” Citing the variety of opinion in the Conservative movement regarding women being called to the Torah, she urged the ritual committee to “follow a course of fairness and equality for all members.”
The rabbi actually read Sally’s letter on Yom Kippur, and the ritual committee voted to let her have her bat mitzvah on Saturday morning. But even clerical opinion was not entirely in her favor, and the cantor did not officiate at her bat mitzvah.
For Gottesman, the bat mitzvah experience was an early lesson in seeing how Judaism can change through the efforts of individuals—as she herself can attest. Hearing about women whose bat mitzvah had been the first at their synagogues, she became curious about what these bat mitzvah pioneers went on to do in their lives and realized that no one had explored the history of this new Jewish tradition. “If you don’t get the history, the history will die,” she says. In fact, many of the officiating rabbis are already gone.
Through Moving Traditions, where she is the board chair, Gottesman started the “Bat Mitzvah Firsts” project, which sent out surveys over the Internet to collect stories of women’s experiences. By doing this, Gottesman came to realize that change can be slow.
“Change doesn’t happen in one fell swoop,” she says. “It wasn’t like one day someone had a bat mitzvah and it is as it is today.” Even Gottesman’s own experience attests to the fact that change has its ups and downs: since she had a Shabbat morning bat mitzvah, but was not allowed to have an aliyah the next week at her synagogue.
Looking at the consumerist bent of many bar and bat mitzvahs today, Gottesman is looking toward more change, asking, “What do we want to be like at year 100 [the 100th anniversary of bat mitzvah]? How do we make a meaningful rite of passage for adolescents today?”
One of her ideas is that, as part of the bar/bat mitzvah process, boys and girls would have five conversations with adults in their lives about what it means to be a man or woman and what it means to be a Jewish man or woman.
“They say they have become a man or woman,” she says. “Let them start exploring what that means. We’re missing that step.”