The Bat Mitzvah Plus program at Congregation Ahavath Torah will begin its sixth season next week. Freidi Hyman, program director, said the curriculum she has created over the years for the seven sessions blends learning, discussion and hands-on activities. While some of the logistics will have to be adjusted due to the pandemic, Torah is timeless, she noted, and the substance of the program is unchanged.
“We created the program to bring meaning and significance to this very important time in the girls’ lives as they become bat mitzvah,” she said. Rebbetzin Hyman, a resident of Englewood, is earning a master’s degree in Jewish education and special education at Touro College. She has been a part of the physical education faculty at the Frisch School in Paramus for 15 years and teaches algebra at the Idea School in Tenafly.
The girls meet for half of the sessions on Shabbat afternoons and the other half on Sundays to learn, work on projects, and do chesed activities. “I give the girls shiurim that I try to make exciting,” said Rebbetzin Hyman. “I tell them stories to bring the concepts to life. I include sources from the Torah so they know where the ideas come from and why we do them. For example, why do we take challah? Where does that come from? What’s the significance? When we learned about challah in past years, the girls made it—one for themselves, and one that they brought to an elderly person in the community. We hope it will be possible to do that again this year.” Throughout the year, the girls pair up for chavruta learning with topics including the laws of lashon hara, and read the book “Positive Word Power; the Language of Friendship and Happiness for Teens.”
Mother-daughter sessions are run by Shoshana Poupko, whose husband Rabbi Chaim Poupko is the senior rabbi at Ahavath Torah. “The community very much supports women’s learning and we are excited to provide a venue for young women at this formative stage of their life,” she said. “For the mother-daughter sessions, it is exciting to see mothers and daughters find resonance in the same shiur—highlighting the agelessness of Torah.”
Rebbetzin Poupko is hoping the meetings can continue at people’s homes as they have been in previous years. Since mothers and daughters are clustered together, she hopes this part of the program can continue, with proper social distancing and masks. She is also hoping for a mild winter so the group can meet outdoors. “Like all educators teaching through COVID, we are going to have to get creative. But the excitement and participation that the young ladies bring to the program will allow us to navigate these challenges.”
Mothers who have had older daughters in the program are looking forward to their current sixth graders joining this year, especially since plans for bat mitzvah celebrations have either been cancelled, postponed or scaled down.
Sharon Jacobs’ daughter Emily, now a student at the Frisch School, was in the program three years ago, and her daughter Sarah is participating this year. “My older daughter loved it,” said Jacobs. “Freidi is very engaging, gets very involved and really motivates the girls. Becoming a bat mitzvah is not just a party; it’s becoming involved in the community, coming of age and giving back.”
Jacobs said the topics are just right for a girl turning 12. “Everything is tied to a young Jewish lady coming of age in a traditional way and how to keep a Jewish home.” For one mother-daughter program, Hyman gave a talk on candle lighting and directed the group in making papier-mache candles. “We made them together and Emily actually uses them,” said Jacobs. “I’m looking at them right now.”
Sarah is looking forward to the program and encouraging friends to participate. “She told one of her friends who isn’t sure about going that her older sister had so much fun—and there’s pizza,” said Jacobs. With Sarah’s birthday in early December, the bat mitzvah party they initially planned for her has been put on hold. “She’s disappointed but she knows what’s going on and understands we can’t have the party she wanted. She’s willing to wait.”
Eda Greenbaum’s fourth daughter will be in the Bat Mitzvah Plus program this year. “It’s really a community program, and a nice opportunity for kids to get together who don’t all go to the same school,” she said. Greenbaum said she has a chat group with other neighborhood mothers who have girls turning 12 and she explained how special the program is to those who asked. “I told them, ‘you should take the opportunity to participate. I think your daughter will enjoy it and you will as well. You’ll both get something out of it.’”
She loves the mother-daughter sessions and activities in which she helped out as a volunteer. “With four kids, it’s not always easy to spend time with each one,” she said. “I went on Sunday morning for two hours with one daughter and made challah. I volunteered once when the girls went to Rockleigh (nursing home). In the past we sent around a spreadsheet and everyone took time to volunteer for something. Everyone was interested and wanted to help.”
Greenbaum said her daughter is a little sad that even though her birthday is next fall, she probably won’t have the party she watched her older sisters have. “This program will help the kids feel like bat mitzvah girls,” said Greenbaum.
For first time participant Dana Sassouness, Bat Mitzvah Plus is a way to infuse meaning into the year for her daughter, especially with ideas for a celebration up in the air. “I want her to realize that it’s more than just a party when you become a bat mitzvah. Being part of the Jewish people means giving back,” she said. It doesn’t matter to her that the activities in the program may have to be adjusted. “I know they are trying to keep the program as normal as possible and whatever they can do is fine.”
Mothers with older daughters who have been through the program say it helps to reinforce Jewish identity, which doesn’t happen overnight. Orit Gribetz had three daughters in the program. “At that age, every exposure we give our girls to chesed and Jewish learning in a different format other than the classroom setting is valuable,” she observed. “As they get older, they appreciate it more. It becomes ingrained as part of the way of life of a Jewish girl.”
Rebbetzin Hyman makes a memory book at the end of each year. The pages are filled with photos from all the activities and brief text to remind the girls of what they did and why. The subheads in last year’s book read, “So Much Fun” and “Good Times.” She anticipates making a 2020-2021 book that will reflect the same enthusiasm.