December, 2011 / Author:

A bat mitzvah for two

After finding a home at Temple Shalom, one lesbian couple has taken a spiritual plunge together, and it doesn’t involve saying “I do” It’s a bat mitzvah.”I think that a Jewish lesbian couple having a joint bat mitzvah is not the norm, and what we want to do very quietly is to show the community that it can be done,” says Sara Raymond, who had a joint bat mitzvah (known as a b’not mitzvah) with her partner, Neire Mercer, on November 19.

But the road to embracing Judaism, and having Judaism accept them, started many years earlier. “For me, having a bat mitzvah is something I always wanted to do,” says Mercer, who converted to Judaism nearly 30 years ago. She says the decision to have an adult bat mitzvah now was influenced by finding a home with the diverse congregation at Winnipeg’s Temple Shalom several years ago. At one time a disaffected Catholic, Mercer first turned to Orthodox Judaism, but found it wasn’t the right fit.

“I gradually went on this journey to find something more suited to me, I went to a number of different synagogues and just wasn’t comfortable at them,” she says. But then she found Temple Shalom, a reform synagogue, and Rabbi Karen Soria, a lesbian Rabbi who welcomes diversity. Soria, who splits her time between Ottawa and Winnipeg, says gay and lesbian Jews have been officially and vociferously welcomed by Reform Judaism for close to 20 years.

Reform Judaism has also established numerous resources, institutions and references to help synagogues become more welcoming to Jewish diversity, including gay and lesbian Jews, whether as individuals, couples, or family units, Soria says.

“Conservative Judaism has, to the best of my knowledge, done much less on an organizational basis. Individual Conservative congregations may be more or less welcoming, reflecting the movement’s long-lasting statements of rejecting marriage between gay and lesbian Jews,” says the rabbi. “Across Canada, I would expect that Reform congregations are welcoming and accepting of gay and lesbian Jews; Conservative ones much less so.”

In December 2006, the New York-based Committee on Jewish Law and Standards approved extending blessings to same-sex unions, but Soria says the decision was a mixed blessing for LGBT Jews. “Such a statement says to me, ‘a dual relationship is better than nothing, but as long as it’s not heterosexual it’s not really the right relationship.’ I cannot imagine being satisfied with a blessing when I can get married in a Jewish ceremony,” she says. “Perhaps the ‘blessing’ is as far as the Conservative movement can stretch at the moment, but it sends a message that homosexual relationships are ‘less than’ and inferior to heterosexual ones.”

And that attitude wasn’t lost on Raymond, who was born into the Jewish faith. When offered the opportunity to have a bat mitzvah at the age of 13, she turned it down. “Growing up, I never did feel comfortable there,” she says. “I felt like an outsider because it was always questions like, who are you going out with? And who are you going to marry?”

That changed with Rabbi Soria and Temple Shalom. “Now as an adult, I feel proud to be either a lesbian Jewess, or a Jewish lesbian. Rabbi Soria and temple Shalom are fabulous,” Raymond says. “It’s nice to be able to go somewhere and not feel like you have to make excuses.”

The preparation for the b’not mitzvah has been intense and has further increased their sense of comfort at synagogue, now that they are able to read the Torah in its original language. The pair has spent the last year learning Hebrew – with the help of former Rady Jewish Community Centre president Ruth Livingston.  

At first glance the pair was daunted by the challenge, but soon came to see modern connections with the text and found unexpected inspiration. “It’s been a challenge not having a lot of information on this text, but the other issue is the issue of women and how women are represented in the Torah,” says Raymond. “They aren’t exactly given a voice … so it’s been interesting.”

But she adds it’s also been very rewarding, noting the ancient figure of Rebekah has become a role model for her. Mercer agrees. “What I learned through studying the lines and trying to interpret them, is that Rebekah is actually a very strong character, a very strong female character,” says Mercer. “She was one of the matriarchs of the Jewish people and a real trailblazer, because she was independent and has a strong character.”

Rabbi Soria says the increase in adult b’not mitzvahs peaked about 20 years ago and was strongly tied to the empowerment of women at that time. “They started mostly because women had been disenfranchised in synagogue Jewish life, and as women gained knowledge, respect and authority in their secular lives, they wished to gain the same in the Jewish lives. So the first adult celebrations tended to be ‘b’not mitzvah,’ “ she says.

However, Jews who did not have a bar or bat mitzvah as youth or became a Jew by choice as an adult, or those who did have a bar or bat mitzvah, but have continued to study, may also choose to have an adult synagogue celebration, Soria adds. The process of exploring their faith and confirming their beliefs together has also brought Raymond and Mercer closer as a couple.

“I told Neire I wanted to share an event,” says Raymond. “I mean, gay couples can get married now and all that, but think of how many lesbian, gay couples can have a bar or bat mitzvah together, to me that is such a spiritual bonding.” They both acknowledge that not all synagogues would support this, and that in some areas of the world women would not be able to have adult bat mitzvahs at all.

“I wish they all would, but I grew up in Winnipeg and know that diversity is not universal. Our synagogue is on the cutting edge of diversity,” says Raymond. “The fact that my partner and I can – for our own reasons – can have a joint bat mitzvah is in itself rare.”

Rabbi Soria also found a home at Temple Shalom. “My experiences at Temple Shalom have been most welcoming and affirming. I believe Temple Shalom accepts people for who they are, reflecting all of God’s amazing diversity and creativity. As with all acceptance, it develops over time: we accept ourselves, we feel accepted, we accept others.”

Raymond and Mercer also note the LGBT community has been supported by the Rady JCC, which hosts Anakhnu, a group for Jewish gays and lesbians. Both Mercer and Raymond sit on group’s board of directors. “We have all types of activities where Jewish LGBT people, of all ages, can get together, celebrate Jewish traditions, holidays, events and feel comfortable,” says Raymond. “It’s a riot.”

– Shannon VanRaes is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer.

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