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Women reading from the Torah scroll during the Sabbath service are a common sight at Jerusalem's Reform Mevakshei Derech Synagogue. But two weeks ago there was a scene that was novel even for that synagogue - 12 women, aged 40-75, celebrated their bat mitzvahs, read from the Torah and haftara (an excerpt from the prophetic books), and were showered with the customary candy launched at younger bar and bat mitzvah celebrants.

"It was nice that they threw candy at us," says Ayelet Wolfstal. "But all told, it wasn't the ceremony that I was interested in, but the studies that preceded it." Wolfstal, 40, who calls herself a secular Jew, says she felt a need to gain better acquaintance with Judaism and its traditions. "I come from a very secular family, even anti-religious, one could say," she says. "But at some point, I felt that as a Jew I should have some idea what this term `Jew' actually means."

In American reform and conservative congregations, adult bar or bat mitzvah ceremonies is common practice, especially among retirees. In Israel, however, there have been only a few dozen ceremonies of this kind during the past several years. This has not been a social trend but rather individual initiatives.

However, a change has been seen recently. "Increasingly, more young women in their 20s want to celebrate their bat mitzvah," Rabbi Meir Azari of the Beit Daniel Reform congregation in Tel Aviv recounts. "I believe that within 10 years this will become commonplace, like it is to see women rabbis today."

The recent bat mitzvah ceremony at Mevakshei Derech was initiated by cantor Iris Wiener. She got the idea from working in the community with boys and girls preparing for their own bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. "The mothers of the children who had their ceremonies with us used to tell me all the time: `I wish I could have had this ceremony myself,'" she says. "So I thought, why not?"

Wiener conceived a three-month program that included teaching the traditional nusach (melody) used to read the Torah and haftara as well as lessons about Jewish tradition, with a focus on women's roles. The program was originally designed for men, too, but eventually only women enrolled.

Tsafra Beit-Yosef, a secular Jew and former kibbutznik, joined the congregation about seven years ago. She says that only now, after the ceremony, does she feel that she truly belongs there. As a grandmother of two, she hopes that the ceremony will offer her a special status in her own family as well. "Many Israelis have an Orthodox bar mitzvah ceremony these days only `to keep grandpa happy,'" she says. "They make the kid do his aliyah (being called up to the Torah) at grandpa's synagogue. So maybe in my family, the kids will do their aliyah in granny's shul (synagogue)."

First female aliyah

The first bar mitzvah ceremonies, in which a 13-year-old boy is called up to the Torah in recognition of his reaching the age when he is expected to take on all of the Torah's 613 commandments, took place in Poland in the 16th century. The first bat mitzvah ceremonies took place in Italy and Iraq in the 19th century. Unlike the boys' ceremonies, those for the girls were not religious.

The first case of a girl receiving an aliya came in 1923, when the daughter of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement (a liberal movement) was called up to the Torah. However, it still took many years until non-Orthodox Jewish movements considered introducing similar ceremonies for boys and girls.

Rabbi David Golinkin, the president of the Conservative movement's rabbinic school, said many synagogues used to conduct lower-profile bat mitzvah ceremonies on Friday night, rather than the traditional Sabbath morning ceremonies for boys.