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Milestone marks a feminist’s coming of age
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Milestone marks a feminist’s coming of age

A bat mitzva in 1951 recalls the obstacles she met and overcame

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

It’s rarely news when a man celebrates a milestone anniversary of becoming a bar mitzva. Five, six, and even seven decades after their big day, they ascend the bima to recite an aliya or chant a haftara first learned long ago.

But when Rebecca Lubetkin of Mountain Lakes celebrated the 60th anniversary of her bat mitzva at Congregation Beth El in South Orange on Dec. 3, there was little precedent.

Not many girls had a bat mitzva at all in the 1950s, let alone on a Saturday morning. While Judith Kaplan, daughter of famed theologian Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, was the first American girl to celebrate becoming bat mitzva in 1922, the tradition did not really catch on until the 1960s and later.

Lubetkin’s role as pioneer will be recognized in a traveling exhibit, “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” that will open on March 6 at the JCC in Manhattan.

Although Lubetkin has gone on to became a prominent feminist, her bat mitzva — held at the Unity Temple in Union on Dec. 8, 1951 — was not really a conscious statement on her part.

“I can’t say it meant nothing, but I was going to do whatever my parents came up with,” she said in an interview at her home in late November. “I have to say I don’t remember much.”

What Lubetkin does remember is being fitted for a pale blue, full-length satin dress, which she wore with long gloves, “because my mother’s sense of modesty suggested that be the way.” Then known as Rebecca Levin, she wore dyed-to-match blue satin shoes and a hat decorated in tulle made by the bridal shop that designed the dress. (Her mother, Jessica Levin, “was not interested in a kipa — that was for boys,” Lubetkin said.)

She also remembers receiving exactly the same education as her twin brother, Henry, and the sense of fairness that led her mother to insist that the two have a ceremony together.

But she does not believe that the Saturday ceremony itself was groundbreaking in terms of congregational life. Rather, she said, the decision was based on logistics and expediency. If her twin would be called up to the Torah for his bar mitzva on Saturday, it wouldn’t have made much sense to split them up, she said.

Moreover, the rabbi, Elvin Kose, who would later author an article titled “An Argument Against Women Rabbis,” was also involved in the founding of the Union for Traditional Judaism, which was formed to protest the Conservative movement’s decision to ordain women.

“If you could imagine a guy like that going for a girl’s bat mitzva on some kind of conviction, you know, it wasn’t so,” she said. “He was a principled person. Changing tradition for girls was not his principle. He made an exception.”

She said she imagined him thinking: “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s his bar mitzva. People will come. They’ll look. They’ll think it’s cute. But religiously, it’s not significant.”

If the bat mitzva didn’t have spiritual meaning for her at the time, she now finds significance in her mother’s convictions.

“It was such a departure from Halacha that it was unthinkable. And there was my mother in a situation where she wanted that for me but she also had to come to terms with it,” she said.

But her mother, too, didn’t regard the bat mitzva as a personal break from traditional values.

“She didn’t seem to feel a bifurcation,” said Lubetkin. In the speech she wrote for her daughter, Jessica Levin wrote, “I realize that this honor is not customary; for today, I am allowed to express publicly my devotion to Torah and I am formally inducted into the community of Israel.” And it continued, “I will also pay particular attention to my special province — what makes a home truly Jewish, in order to fulfill the concept of eshet hayil, a woman of valor.”

Lubetkin said, “It wasn’t that she wanted her daughter to grow up wearing combat boots. She just wanted her to grow up to be able to express herself Jewishly publicly.”

The bat mitzva also raised issues for congregational leaders. “I guess it didn’t seem right to give me a wine cup. So what do you do with a girl? Everything was new. This is what I got for my bat mitzva,” said Lubetkin, emerging from another room in her house with a small book, with gilt edges and engraved with her name. “This is called The Bride’s Bible. I suppose I was supposed to carry it when I went down the aisle — which I didn’t do.”

Lubetkin said she began a long involvement in feminist issues in 1971, when, as a mother of two daughters, she joined the National Organization for Women. She is a board member of the Veteran Feminists of America, and a professor emerita at Rutgers University’s School of Planning and Public Policy. For much of her academic career she served as founding director of the Rutgers Consortium for Educational Equity. In retirement she hosts the cable TV show New Directions for Women, sponsored by the Morris County chapter of NOW.

Lubetkin was part of the group that in 1974 opened up Little League baseball for girls. She even fought to add women skaters to the safety staff at South Mountain Arena in West Orange.

Ultimately, Lubetkin brought her secular feminism into the Jewish realm. In 1974, by then a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, she declined to join its sisterhood because it was reluctant to push for women’s “full participation” in synagogue life. She later withheld an annual donation to the Jewish Theological Seminary for not moving fast enough on the issue of women’s ordination.

“I think the instructional part of my bat mitzva is not my personal experience. The instructional part is: How does social change take place and can we even imagine that just 60 years ago this was considered such a way-out thing to do?” she said. “And when you decide to go with it, you don’t go whole hog, because you do not know exactly how to go. You feel your way and try your way, and actually it takes some time and a lot of stress.”

She remembers the objections when Beth El, now egalitarian, was moving toward allowing women to take part in rituals traditionally reserved for men. She recalled a “town meeting” in which one male congregant worried that services would turn into a “fashion show.”

“It’s unimaginable what resistance looks like when there’s no more resistance,” she said. “I would like to have young people have some sense of what came before them — some sense that these things didn’t automatically happen because they seem natural and they seem to make sense.

“They happened because people stuck their necks out and worked hard with a lot of resistance.”

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