For most Jewish tween girls, the concept of the bat mitzvah has come to mean one thing: a lavish party with multiple outfit changes, Oscars-style celebrity goodie bags and a hip rocker singing new hits.
But Beth Heifetz, a Washington D.C. mother of two and a partner at Jones Day law firm, wanted more than schwag and partying for her daughter, Julia.
“I wanted my daughter to have an opportunity to think about what it means to be abat mitzvah and what it means to be a young Jewish woman today,” said Heifetz.
Although Julia had been involved in Jewish life through their Conservative shul and at her Conservative camp, Heifetz was concerned that “the important role of Jewish women both historically and today can be overlooked.”
So four years ago, when she was approaching bat mitzvah, Beth took to the internet searching for resources to share with Julia. Thankfully, she said, she stumbled across Bat Mitzvah Clubs International. She contacted the local Chabad and representative Nechama Shemtov and Heifetz worked to put together a group of girls, find leaders, and launch a chapter of the Bat Mitzvah Club.
Now 16, the experience continues in Julia’s life, shaping her identity and sense of self as a Jewish woman. After her bat mitzvah, Julia wanted to continue the Jewish experience and with Shemtov’s help, they established a local chapter of Friendship Circle. For the past four years, Julia and a friend have spent time every week during the school year with a boy who has special needs.
“It has been a remarkable growth experience for her on many levels, including responsibility, planning, time management, the importance of giving to others, and the wonderful feeling that comes with doing the right thing,” Heifetz said.
Julia is one of thousands of girls who’ve approached Jewish womanhood with the help of Bat Mitzvah Clubs International, a program designed for 11-13 year-old girls wanting to explore their identity, particularly as a bat mitzvah.
Created 20 years ago by Esti Frimerman, a Brooklyn mother of a large family and a Hebrew school teacher, the program, said Frimerman, aims to reach Jewish girls in their formative years with a powerful message.
“My objective is to help these girls realize that they have a soul, that there is another dimension to their essential being that is far more interesting than what they think they are, and other than what they see in the mirror.”
In fact, according to a 2001 Jewish Adolescent Study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, in which nearly 1,300 b’nei mitzvah from Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and independent congregations were surveyed in Eastern Massachusetts, three-quarters of the respondents cared seriously about a search for meaning in life, but only 40 percent sought to find that meaning through their Jewisness.
Involved in Jewish education for more than 25 years teaching 11-year-old religious school girls, Frimerman took a concept from Chabad Chasidic doctrine about a G-dly soul that becomes complete at the age of bar-bat mitzvah, and created a program at the flagship Chabad girls school, Beth Rivkah, in Brooklyn. She developed a curriculum on teachings about the integration of the spiritual and the physical, with a focus on Jewish feminine identity. Soon after, in 1993, she got a request from Tzivos Hashem International to rethink the program for non-religious, public school girls, and Bat Mitzvah Clubs International was born.
“I felt like I could really relate to girls that age,” said Frimerman. A mother of five daughters, she knows “that turf very well,” and enjoys the challenge of reaching that demographic with eye-opening, enduring ideas.
Stephanie Blitshtein, who went through Bat Mitzvah Club in Plano, Texas, in 2007, said that the experience of being part of the program changed her.
“BMC impacted me Jewishly by teaching me what it meant to become bat mitzvah and the responsibilities that came along with that,” she said. The program, she said, also gave her Jewish knowledge in terms of practical mitzvot.
After becoming a bat mitzvah, Blitshtein ramped up her observance and her involvement in the Jewish community.
“I became really involved at Chabad of Plano by becoming a counselor for the summer and winter camp, running children’s programs for holidays and on Shabbat, being a teacher’s assistant at Hebrew school,” she said. “Now I go to shul a lot more often, light Shabbat candles every week, have stricter eating habits, observe holidays and some Shabbats, and know a lot more about Judiasm.”
Chabad representative Rochel Lowenthal, who runs a club in Denmark, said that the most powerful part of being a leader is being able to “touch the girls at this sensitive time of their lives and show them that bat mitzvah is not only about a party, but that bat mitzvah, and everything Jewish, has tremendous depth and can totally impact their lives.”
Prompted by a desire to learn more about Judaism, Helena Rosenstrauch now 20 and preparing for her senior year at the University of Buffalo, joined the Albany, NY, Bat Mitzvah Club in 2002. The opportunity allowed her connect to other Jewish girls “even if they were of a different background.”
“It had a great impact on me by further teaching Jewish traditions and encouraging me to be proud of being a Jewish girl,” she said. “Jewish values continue to guide my life, and I know that they always will thanks to my upbringing and the Bat Mitzvah Club.”
Rosenstrauch said her participation in the club brought her closer to her mother and her grandmother, and she now is as involved as ever in her campus Chabad and Hillel.
For Racheli Metal, a Chabad representative in Las Vegas,leading the Bat Mitzvah Club is “sowing seeds that might really lie dormant for many years.” The girls that come to her Bat Mitzvah Club, she observed, do so for the social benefits, as well as for a deeper awakening for something true and meaningful to hold onto in their budding world of fashion, peer-pressure and “bat mitzva parties.”
“I hope and pray that one day, before these girls get married, they might give pause, and think of a lesson on Family Purity and their first ‘mikvah experience’ or perhaps reflect on the importance of marrying a Jewish guy, and continuing an important chain of tradition.”
One year, Metal arranged a mock wedding and invited the girls’ mothers as guests in an effort to strengthen the mother-daughter bond.
“Many were dabbing their eyes as they held the poles of the chuppah (wedding canopy) and we sang the tune of Eishet Chayil as we walked the ‘bride’ around the ‘groom,’” she said.
In Munich, Germany, Chanie Diskin saw the power of the program after teaching fifth, sixth, and seventh graders in the public school system and hearing how they celebrated their bat mitzvah.
“I knew that I needed to become proactive,” she said. “I needed to impart meaning into their otherwise meaningless disco party celebrations.”
So Diskin brought the club to Germany, where she expanded it for teenagers because so many girls wanted to continue learning.
“As a result, many girls have opted for a religious ceremony in the Orthodox tradition either on Friday evening with a candle-lighting ceremony or a havdalah ceremony,” she said.
Today, there are nearly 300 active clubs around the world. Currently, Frimerman is working on translating the curriculums into five languages: Portuguese, Spanish, German, French, and Russian. She also is working on two new projects: one will allow girls to address everyday problems in their lives and the other will help them understand and get along with their parents better.
At an age when children tend to become rebellious, the BMC is especially relevant. “Parents and children have more problems getting along than ever before,” says Frimerman, who works creatively, ever mindful of how the program can work to close the growing gap between mothers and daughters, and contribute to a more wholesome family dynamic.
Bat Mitzvah Clubs International also is partnering with Chabad.org to create a dynamic virtual experience for club leaders, parents, and bat mitzvah girls. Frimerman hopes that the website will provide an interactive space where the girls can ask questions about religion, spirituality, school, parents, and more. Likewise, the program has been so successful at engaging young Jewish girls that many clubs around the world, like the one in Denmark, have extended the learning experience creating “teen clubs” for 13 through 16-year-old girls.
“Today’s girls,” said Frimerman, “are exposed to an incredible amount of meaningless, even negative stimuli, and the messages targeting them encourage consumerism, materialism and and less than ideal role models,” all of whichhave a corrosive effect on them.
Presented with a meaningful alternative to popular culture, “the girls really gravitate towards it. You can see their hunger for a substantive experience that nurtures them psychologically, intellectually and spiritually in a positive, affirmative way.”