When I turned twelve, I had no idea that just over a decade later I would be in school again, learning how to replicate that day for others. Back then, Orthodox women had no place in the clergy.
For most Orthodox women, becoming Bat Mitzvah has no ramifications as regards their synagogue life. Boys begin to wear tefillin, count in the minyan, regularly lead prayers and get aliyot. For boys, their status in the synagogue is permanently changed. For girls, it’s the same as it was: attendance sometimes suggested.
My bat mitzvah was different. My Orthodox synagogue had a Women’s Tefillah Group, where adult Jewish women read from the Torah and led tefillot. I had attended with my mother for as long as I could remember, walking back to synagogue on Shabbat afternoons hand-in-hand, talking and singing together. Within the context of Women’s Tefillah, my Bat Mitzvah marked a synagogue change for me. I read from the Torah and led services in a room crowded full of women and girls. I felt a soaring sensation, a connectedness to the Jewish past and present, and a glowing relationship with the Almighty. The day was empowering: I am now an adult, and I have the status and capabilities to be a ritual and religious leader within the Jewish people.
Throughout middle school and high school, I fell in love with Talmud study and deepened my already intense connection with prayer and ritual. I delivered Divrei Torah in school and in my synagogue. I tried to convince myself that I was going to be a lawyer. After all, that uses the same analytic skills as Talmud study, right? I loved the synagogue, but women worked in Orthodox synagogues as secretaries, not Rabbis.
Until 2009, with the ordination of the first Orthodox woman and the creation of Yeshivat Maharat, where I now study for ordination.
If I could relive my Bat Mitzvah, I would transport it to 2015. I would cut out all of the years of disempowerment, all the years of looking ahead at a glass ceiling and believing that it was bulletproof. I wish I could have believed, at age 12, that this profession, like any other, was open to me if I worked hard. That the love I felt for the synagogue, on that day, was not unrequited.
Leah Sarna is a first year student at Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to offer ordination to Orthodox women. She is also a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Leah grew up in Boston where she attended the Maimonides School, and she has since studied at the Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz, and Yale University, where she earned a BA in Philosophy.