Megan Glajchen and Irene Billinson, both 11, and Emma Lichtenberg, 12, sat around the dining room table in Ashley Jacob’s West Orange home on a recent Sunday afternoon. They munched on grapes and cookies while considering commentaries on why the biblical patriarch Jacob was angry at his wife Rachel for asking him to give her children.
The questions and writings they were focusing on made up one segment of the session, which also included studying a source sheet created by the late Israeli scholar and educator Nechama Leibowitz.
“This is the way Nechama Leibowitz taught people to learn. She sent out source sheets so people could learn in their homes, and she’d have correspondence with them,” explained Jacob, youth director at the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, where Megan and her family are members. Megan’s mother, Fran, recruited Jacob to lead the year-long class.
The group’s four girls usually met for their monthly two-hour class in the offices of the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life at the Aidekman campus in Whippany; occasionally, as on this day, they gathered in Jacob’s home. The focus of their class: women role models throughout Jewish history.
The girls struggled with the commentaries and seemed relieved to move on to a game that would help introduce their next subject, Bracha Kapach, a Jerusalem resident who creates hesed projects that help women across Israel.
The Matan bat mitzva curriculum — developed in Israel by a group that provides opportunities for women to study Torah — is part of a do-it-yourself approach to Jewish learning effort by the mostly Orthodox girls’ parents. Megan’s parents, Fran and Mark Glajchen, whose two daughters attend Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston, bought the curriculum with another family.
“There was nothing available here through the school or our shul” akin to the curriculum “at the time we started looking,” Fran said; families at both were “on their own” in determining “what the girls would study and how they would prepare for and then celebrate their b’not mitzva.”
As they explored, Fran said, they came not only to Matan, but also to another conclusion. “We really wanted a group setting where Megan could do some learning for her bat mitzva and meet other kids from other areas and other religious backgrounds.”
Robert Lichtman, director of the Partnership — an agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ — called this approach “no small thing.” He considers the project part of a new trend known as “prosumerism,” or an initiative in which “the consumer of the product is also the producer of the product.” In this case, he said, “parents taking charge of providing this experience for their own children is a positive sign that parents want more involvement. We hope to encourage more of this.”
Suburban Torah has no formal program for either boys or girls as they approach bar or bat mitzva. All youngsters are encouraged to contact the rabbi to make special study arrangements.
But in February 2012, Kushner launched a week-long curriculum created by faculty members that is similar to Matan, said associate principal Debbie Finkelstein. Girls in the sixth grade study women role models from the Tanach and meet professional women from the local Orthodox community who describe their career paths and religious choices. The students work on a hesed project and have the opportunity through the curriculum to explore issues like peer pressure and feeling ostracized. (Boys have their own similar program a year later.)
Parents of fifth-grade girls and sixth-grade boys at Kushner are also invited to a program where members of the faculty and staff discuss the significance of becoming a bar or bat mitzva, as well as issues of socialization and group dynamics.
While the Glajchens are “pleased” that their daughter will have this additional opportunity to study women in Jewish history, it wasn’t in place when they started looking. But more than that, Fran said, “While there does seem to be some level of overlap, the depth and breadth of the Matan program seems to be far in excess of what JKHA offers.” She also cited the importance of the program’s extending beyond Megan’s typical social community. “By opening it up and ultimately including participants from around the federation community, we think we have broadened her perspective,” said Fran.
Developed in 1995 and introduced in North America in 2004, Matan is being taught in 100 communities in the United States, including 11 in New Jersey, mostly in Bergen and Middlesex counties.
Four families signed their daughters up for the “guinea pig” year, as Fran called it. In addition to Megan, they included Irene Billinson, who switched from public school to Kushner after graduating from the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph and whose family belongs to Mount Freedom Jewish Center. Emma Lichtenberg attends public middle school in Randolph. (Katie Dickman of West Orange, who couldn’t attend on that particular Sunday, was the fourth student.)
Designed as a 10-unit, mother-daughter weekly program, Matan includes text study, arts and crafts, movement, dance, and games. It can be adapted to the needs of each group. Some meet monthly and sometimes the girls proceed without the mothers, as the local group has done. The subjects include biblical, historical, and contemporary role models.
One memorable session focused on Rebecca, recalled Megan. “We had a water race to show how much water she had to carry to water the camels — we carried, I think, eight gallons of water. In real life, it was over 100!”
Irene’s mother, Cindy Billinson, said, “I like the idea of learning about other women in Judaism and having role models. Irene is just getting a sense of the strength of women in history. There are lots of misconceptions about women’s roles in society. I want Irene to feel she can do anything.”
May 5 marked the final session for this year. The program will start up again next year for a new cohort of girls.