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Until a few months ago, Tal Daee had no idea that she would be delivering a speech to classmates and other guests at her bat-mitzvah. The mere thought of a secular girl like her showing an interest in the weekly Torah portion and attempting to "connect with Jewish sources," as she put it, was beyond her scope. But this year, sixth-grade pupils at the Ma'anit elementary school in Be'er Sheva began a study program to prepare them for their bar- and bat-mitzvahs.

The program, called Hamasa el Hadrasha (literally, "journey to the sermon"), was meaningful enough to become an integral aspect of Daee's life - not something she leaves behind in the classroom when she goes home. Now, she says, it seems completely natural to her to speak in front of her classmates about "her portion," Matot, the biblical story of a Moabite-Midianite attack against the Israelites, which will be read in synagogue during the week of her bat-mitzvah.

The Hamasa el Hadrasha program, currently in its third year in more than 150 elementary schools, is run by the Itim Jewish Life Information Center, a religiously pluralistic nonprofit organization that offers advice on subjects pertaining to the Jewish life cycle, in conjunction the Education Ministry's Shenhar Commission, which is responsible for promoting Jewish culture in secular schools. But familiarity with concepts like the weekly Torah portion is not the program's primary goal.

Its main goal is to incorporate a pluralistic and egalitarian view of Judaism into the education system.

In the process of preparing their speeches, students learn about rites of passage and becoming an adult in various cultures, in addition to the origins of bar- and bat-mitzvah rituals. The writing of the speeches is also a process, which begins with preparing a rough draft and giving it to the teacher for comment. Later, pupils read their speeches aloud in class and hear their classmates' critiques before applying the final touches.

According to Itim's founder and director, Rabbi Shaul Farber, another thing that makes the Hamasa el Hadrasha program unique is that pupils quickly make the leap from total secularism to the world of religious feminism. In contrast with the Orthodox approach, which tends to highlight male achievements and minimize the role of women, the program treats women as equal partners in the creation of history. This idea meshes well with the renewed interest in Jewish texts and sources that has recently burgeoned in secular Israeli society.

Many of the secular Jews who are now studying Judaism support the position that they must not allow Jewish culture and heritage to become the exclusive purview of the Orthodox establishment. Such families typically hold bat-mitzvah ceremonies in which girls read from the Torah in synagogue, in addition to bat-mitzvah parties.

The design of the Hamasa el Hadrasha workbook has also contributed to the program's popularity. It includes comic-book illustrations along with copious space in which to display personal photographs and write family histories. Thus the book ultimately becomes a packed photo album and scrapbook commemorating the "journey."

Last Tuesday, a delegation from the Ma'anit school received a prize from the Knesset Education Committee for excellence in implementing the program. Daee's vice-principal and homeroom teacher, Riki Ohayon, said that all the pupils in her class wrote speeches, and some of them were very moving.

Ohayon said the program was an opportunity to bring the children closer to Jewish tradition in a way they could comprehend. The connection to the school and the students' family histories was particularly meaningful, she noted: Daee, for example, discovered that the Neveh Noy neighborhood in which she lives was built on the ruins of the tent encampment in which her grandparents lived when they immigrated to Israel from Tunis.

"The speeches were not written immediately," Ohayon stressed. "First, the students were required to become familiar with their family histories, to describe their families' traditions and, of course, to read and become thoroughly familiar with their weekly Torah portions."

"It was a journey of discovery for me as well," she concluded. "It moves me to think that the children, and especially the girls, will make use of their sermons at their [bar- and bat-mitzvah] parties."