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The Holiday of Shavuot, celebrated this year from May 14-16, is such a perfect one for us Bat Mitzvah girls. Just as we celebrate accepting our responsibilities as Jews, our ancestors at Mt. Sinai joyfully took upon themselves the same commandments with the statement, “Naasah V’Nishama! - We shall do and we shall hear!” 

In fact, the two occasions are so connected that the first Bat Mitzvah ceremonies ever were said to have been held on Shavuot. Isaac Pardo was the Rabbi of Verona, Italy in the 19th century, and the earliest bat mitzvah was attributed to his synagogue there.

In Pardo’s synagogue, the Bat Mitzvah was a communal ceremony, held for all the girls who turned 12 during the course of the following year. According to Aliza Lavie, author of the new book: Women's Customs: A Journey of Jewish Customs, Rituals, Prayers and Stories, “The girls wore white and entered the men's section of the synagogue during the procession; accompanied by a choir ... The rabbi blessed them.” The Song of Deborah (Judges 5) was also sung to teach the girls about the strong female Jewish role-model, the only woman judge and prophetess, Devorah.


PictureSheena at her 1997 bat mitzvah
And the Bat Mitzvah custom spread from there. Indeed, in my own 1997 Bat Mitzvah speech about Shavuot I connected to accepting the Torah because just as each year on Shavuot Jews are taught to re-accept the Torah upon themselves, our Bat Mitzvah date is our own personal Shavuot. 

May we continue to go beyond bat mitzvah each year...even 16 years later.

Sheena Levi
Director of Outreach
sheena@levlalev.com


 
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You may be surprised to find that "becoming bar/bat mitzvah" happens automatically when a Jewish boy reaches the age of 13 and a girl, age 12. The ceremony that today occupies center stage is actually a historical afterthought, with evidence of observance starting only from sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries.

Unlike boys, there isn't as long a history of coming-of-age rituals for girls* and young women are not bound by age-old traditions like young Jewish men. An early bat mitzvah usually followed the same format as a bar mitzvah, however, because women are not traditionally required to perform many of the more public mitzvot (commandments), an authoritarian ceremony made little sense. Therefore, as observant women have become more Judaically educated, they are eager to create meaningful rituals unique to a bat mitzvah.

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celebrating with a women only theatre perfomance
Since the bat mitzvah is still a relatively new idea that continues to evolve, the modern bat mitzvah varies depending on your congregation. Still, young Jewish women have more freedom to express themselves at a bat mitzvah. Without a binding centuries-old tradition to follow, you can be innovative and creative in shaping the ceremony and celebration.

Some girls choose to observe the occasion by giving talks either on the Torah portion or some personally meaningful aspect of their involvement in Judaism. Another influence on the development of a bat mitzvah within Orthodoxy is the women's prayer group.

Since some Jewish sages have said that tzedakah is the highest of all the mitzvot, equal to them all combined, more and more bat mitzvah girls worldwide are now choosing to celebrate with a tzedakah project; something to benefit those less fortunate. Carrying on the tradition of chesed, loving-kindness displayed by the Jewish foremothers, who shaped the course of Jewish history; this new tradition has even had an impact on the modern bar mitzvah ceremony!

Your bat mitzvah experience is even more special when you enrich the lives of others! Jewish tradition teaches that we deepen our happiness when we share our joyous celebrations with people in need. This is especially important as you prepare for a bat mitzvah, when you become an adult and accept responsibility for fulfilling the important mitzvah of tzedakah.

There are so many options to select or create a project that matches your own personal skills and interests. One may elect to give a portion of gift money to a charity which reflects these interests. Another wonderful way to share the joy of your bat mitzvah is to donate the flowers, centerpieces, extra baked goods and food to a hospital, homeless and/or children's shelter, senior home, or other recipient. They will be delighted, and you will truly be performing a mitzvah.

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American bat mitzvah girls celebrate in Israel
Put the mitzvah in bat mitzvah…Lev LaLev joins hands with bat mitzvah girls, Just Like YOU! The Torah commands us to care for the orphan and to never forget our Holy Land…join hands with bat mitzvah girls from around the globe in planning your very own Mitzvah Project to support orphaned girls in Israel!

Together we can help you brainstorm ideas to start your journey as a Jewish adult with a meaningful contribution that fits your personality and favorite hobbies. Contact Sheena Levi at sheena@levlalev.com or call 1-800-630-1106. Learn more about what we do: www.levlalev.com/batmitzvah

* By the 14th century, sources mention a boy being called up to the Torah for the first time on the Sabbath coinciding with or following his 13th birthday. By the 17th century, boys were also reading Torah and delivering talks, often on talmudic learning, at an afternoon seudat mitzvah (ritual meal). Today the speech, usually a commentary on the weekly Torah portion, generally takes place during the morning service.

Historians discovered evidence that families began honoring their daughters with a special meal for their 12th birthday in countries such as France, Italy, and Germany only about 200 years ago. Since girls physically mature at an earlier age than boys, twelve, not thirteen, was the age chosen for a Jewish girl's passage into adulthood. However, it wasn't until 1922 that the first bat mitzvah in North America was celebrated, but most Jewish girls did not have an opportunity to become a bat mitzvah in a synagogue ceremony until the 1950s, or later.

 
originally posted on 08/02/2012 by Leah Caras on yaldah.com
Tell us what becoming a Bat Mitzvah means to you, and  you could win a beautiful sterling silver key necklace!

We’re looking for an essay 400-700 words from a girl who has either already celebrated her Bat Mitzvah, or is looking forward to celebrating it in the future. The essay should be either a reflection of the importance of becoming a Bat Mitzvah and how it has affected your life, or what you are looking forward to about becoming a Bat Mitzvah and what you expect to learn and gain from the experience.

Eligibility: Author must be a Jewish girl age 8-15
Essay Guidelines: 

1. Essay should be written in the first person.

2. It should be between 400-700 words.

3. It should focus on the significance of becoming a Jewish woman, not the celebration of a Bat Mitzvah party.

To Enter: Submit your essay using the form below or email to submit@yaldah.com. When you email a submission, make sure to include the entrant’s full name, date of birth, state, and  e-mail address. Entries must be received by August 31, 2012.

Judging: Essays will be judged as follows: 40% content, 30% relevance to topic, 20% creativity, 10% spelling & grammar.

Prize: The grand prize winner will win a sterling silver “key” necklace (pictured above) from The Sterling Society.  The pendant is 1.45 inches and comes with a choice of a 16” or 18” Italian chain. The winning essay will also be published in YALDAH magazine. A number of “runner-up” essays will be published in the Bat Mitzvah section of www.yaldah.com.

Prize is sponsored by The Sterling Society. To receive 10% off your purchase at TheSterlingSociety.com use the promo code YALDAH10.
 
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On May 20th, Sarina Hilowitz of Savannah, Georgia will be celebrating her Bat Mitzvah, which she is twinning with one of our girls at the Rubin-Zeffren Children's Home in Netanya, Israel. The sponsorship is in memory of her Zeyde whose life story is truly inspirational and miraculous.

In honor of today's Yom HaZikaron - Remembrance Day for those who fought for Israel's freedom, Sarina's father shares his fathers amazing story with us.

                                                   ...

My dad, Max Hilowitz Z'L , was taken to a work camp, Plasow, at the approx age of 16.

This was the camp where the notorious Amon Goeth was the commandant. It was also the camp where Oscar Schindler saved close to 1,2OO Jews.

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Jewish women at forced labor in the Plaszow labor camp.
Inmates were constantly worked hard, tortured and killed.

One day my dad was told by a Nazi guard to run an errand and come right back. He returned and was told to stand on a chair. A rope was put around his neck and he was asked what he wanted to say before he was to be hanged. My dad said the Shemah.
The Nazi kicked the chair and my dad miraculously fell to the ground. The rope broke. He was told to go back to his barracks. By coincidence, I had the opportunity to examine a patient who was at the Plasow work camp from the day it was built. He told me if ever something went wrong with a hanging the inmate was hanged again. 

Years ago, I asked my dad why he didn't try and make a run for it when he was told to stand on the chair. At that point I told him "You had nothing to lose by trying and escape". He told me that he had no will to live. He had lost most of his family during the Holocaust. Hashem saved my father. My dad had many more good things to do for klal Yisroel.

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Max Hilowitz, Holocaust survivor, while in the Israel Defense Force
He had the opportunity to take revenge on the Nazis multiple times by the end of the war, then volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces in 1948. In that year on Yom Kippur he pulled his friend to safety after his friend was shot and lying in the battlefield under a barrage of Syrian gunfire. My dad ran onto the battlefield under heavy fire and put his friend on his shoulder and made it to shelter. 

Last year when my father's platoon sergeant from the 1948 war, came to pay a shiva call for my father, the first thing he said was " your father saved Shmilicks's life".

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Max's son Jeff with his daughter, and Lev LaLev Bat Mitzvah girl, Sarina
With all that my father survived and accomplished he was very well liked by all, from his name Meir in Hebrew, he gave off light to all that met him. He is survived by two sons, and three grandchildren, Joshua, Sarina and Ava. He was a wonderful man. We all miss him so much.

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This year, when you are at the seder I want you to think about Moses. As an infant, Moses was smuggled into the Nile River to protect him from the decree sentencing all male Jewish babies to death. He was saved by an Egyptian princess and raised in the palace before he eventually found his way back to his people.
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Irena Sendler; image credit: www.thejcconline.com
Thinking of this I am reminded of the story of Irena Sendler.

Irena was a Polish Catholic social worker who served in the Polish Underground and the Zegota (the Council to Aid Jews) resistance organization in German-occupied Warsaw during World War II. 

Under the pretext of conducting inspections of sanitary conditions during a typhus outbreak, Sendler and her co-workers visited the Warsaw Ghetto and smuggled out babies and small children in ambulances and trams, sometimes disguising them as packages. In this manner, Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children, providing them with false documents, and sheltering them in individual and group children's homes outside the Ghetto.

She and her co-workers buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of their original and new identities. Żegota assured the children that, when the war was over, they would be returned to Jewish relatives. However, after the war, almost all of their parents had been killed at or had otherwise gone missing.  


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Jewish survivors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp, some still in their camp clothing, stand on the deck of the refugee immigration ship Mataroa, on July 15, 1945 at Haifa port, during the British Mandate of Palestine, in what would later become the State of Israel. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO via Getty Images)
This April we celebrate G-d bringing the Jews out of slavery in Egypt on Pesach (April 6-14), commemorate those lost in the Holocaust (Yom Ha’Shoah – April 19), as well as celebrate the founding of the State of Israel (Yom Ha’azmaut – April 26). 

So, this year, let us reflect on the story of the Jews in Egypt and how it correlates to Jewish persecution throughout history, the Holocaust and the subsequent founding of the State of Israel. 

What connections do you find? (Hint: look at the way the Jews of Egypt were ghettoized in Goshen before they became slaves.)  Please share your insights in a comment below. I look forward to seeing what you find and learning something new!

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Wishing you and your family a Chag Kasher V'Sameach! 


Sheena Levi 

Lev LaLev Director of Development 

Article originally featured in the April edition of the Beyond Bat Mitzvah BBMessenger monthly E-Newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter.