Exhibit at Jewish Museum traces history of bat mitzvah

09/01/2013 9:52 AM

09/01/2013 9:53 AM

When it came to preparing for her son’s bar mitzvah, Julie Pronesti took a more active approach than most parents.

The Hollywood mom enrolled herself in an adult bat mitzvah class at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach, with the idea that it wouldn’t be fair to make her son go through the coming-of-age ceremony when she hadn’t gone through it herself.

“That’s the reason I did it before him, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Pronesti, 48, who participated in a group service at the temple in April. “Now, I am going to read at Blaise’s bar mitzvah, which is an honor.”

Although the ceremony isn’t required to be accepted into the Jewish religion, many consider it a right of passage.

While the first bat mitzvah ceremony took place in 1922 in New York, it took some time before the process became the common occurrence it is today.

The evolution of the bat mitzvah is currently being featured at the Jewish Museum of Florida in an exhibit called Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age, which closes on Sept. 15.

"The point of the exhibit is to show that bat mitzvahs were not always an everyday tradition," said Jo Ann Arnowitz, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida. "Women had to fight for that right."

It wasn’t until the 1960s that two of the three largest Jewish denominations — Conservative and Reform — would recognize the bat mitzvah with a public ceremony, according to Rabbi Mark H. Kula of Bet Shira Congregation in Pinecrest.

Most of the time they would do the ceremonies on a Friday night instead of the Saturday morning, but “by the late ‘70s early ‘80s in the liberal community, which would include Conservative and Reform, girls would participate fully, on Saturdays as well,” Kula said.

The ceremony is even practiced in some Orthodox synagogues, but girls are not called to read from the Torah — scrolls containing the first five books of the Bible in Hebrew — during these events.

The Jewish Museum’s exhibit features 100 people and more than 40 South Florida families, including Pronesti and the women with whom she shared her bat mitzvah.

"Through our archives, we were able to bring to life Florida’s extensive history with women making the courageous step to seek a bat mitzvah," Arnowitz said.

Bonnie Askowitz, who is story is also featured in the exhibit, took part in a b’not mitzvah, or group ceremony at Kendall’s Bet Breira Congregation in 1983, with her mother and daughter, who was 14 at the time.

"It was a special experience to share my bat mitzvah with my daughter and mother," said Askowitz, 72. "It brought us together and reminded us that we come from a very long history."

Those who missed out on having a bat mitzvah as children, either because it wasn’t an option given to them or because they converted to the faith later in life, often take adult bat mitzvah classes, which are offered by several temples in the area.

Since she wasn’t able to have a bat mitzvah growing up, Stacy Kanas has been toying with the idea of attending one.

“I always did want to have those experiences,” said Kanas, 47, of Plantation, whose daughter will have hers in November.

“I have told her I am very proud of her and how it means a lot to me to see her doing something I was not able to do at her age,” Kanas said.

The evolution of the bat mitzvah isn’t isolated to the United States.

Ruth Stern Salinger grew up in a Conservative Jewish congregation in Guayaquil Ecuador.

She remembers sitting in the back of a synagogue when she was 13, watching her twin brother go through the ceremony and wishing she could do it too.

“It never would have crossed anyone’s mind to give that opportunity to women,” said Stern Salinger, of Coral Gables.

Just like in the United States, the ceremony became more commonly practiced over time in Ecuador, and by the 1980s, Stern Salinger got to watch her two nieces get bat mitzvahed.

“I was happy for them,” Stern Salinger said. “I was very proud of my nieces for being able to do it in a country where women my age didn’t.”

In June, her nieces got to watch her go through the ceremony at Temple Judea in Coral Gables.

“So it’s like the circle is closing in that way,” Stern Salinger said.

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