Supreme Court Nominee’s Bat Mitzvah With Rabbi Riskin and Her Testing the Boundaries of Her Faith


supreme-courtThe following report appears in the New York Times:

Elena Kagan was a star pupil in her Hebrew school on the Upper West Side. So it was not too surprising after she turned 12 that she wanted to mark her coming of age with a bat mitzvah.

The only problem was that the rabbi at her Orthodox synagogue, Shlomo Riskin, had never performed one.

“Elena Kagan felt very strongly that there should be ritual bat mitzvah in the synagogue, no less important than the ritual bar mitzvah,” Rabbi Riskin said, referring to the rite of passage for 13-year-old boys. “This was really the first formal bat mitzvah we had.”

But while Elena, the brainy, self-assured daughter of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, asked to read from the Torah on a Saturday morning, just as the boys did, it was not to be. Instead, her ceremony took place on a Friday night, May 18, 1973, and she read from the Book of Ruth, which she also analyzed in a speech.

Long before she became the first female dean of Harvard Law School and the first woman to serve as solicitor general, Ms. Kagan, now a nominee to the Supreme Court, was questioning and testing the boundaries of another institution: her religion.

Feminism had just begun to percolate in Orthodox congregations, though it was starting to transform Conservative Judaism, where in 1972 a group of women founded Ezrat Nashim, which can be translated as women’s section or women’s help, and petitioned Conservative leaders for equality. Girls in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, and in a few Conservative ones, were already reading from the Torah during bat mitzvah ceremonies.

“In terms of timing, this was the period when young women coming of age, who had those kinds of expectations for equality and taking leadership positions in the secular world, began to question: Why can’t I do this in the Jewish world?” said Shuly Rubin Schwartz, an associate professor of Jewish history and the dean of List College at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “What is unusual is that she asked it in an Orthodox institution where that was an unheard-of question at that point.”

Ms. Kagan’s family belonged to Lincoln Square Synagogue, a wildly popular institution on Amsterdam Avenue that was attracting hundreds of new families and singles to its brand of modern Orthodoxy.

In 1964, Rabbi Riskin, a charismatic 24-year-old, was sent by Yeshiva University to preside over High Holy Days services for a group of Conservative Jews who lived in Lincoln Towers, a sprawling apartment complex.

They liked him so much, despite the fact that he was Orthodox, that they soon started holding regular services in one apartment, then two apartments, where the congregants erected a wall of potted plants to serve as a mechitza, the traditional barrier separating men and women. They also dropped the “Conservative” in the name of their synagogue. And by 1970, they opened a new synagogue at 200 Amsterdam Avenue with an unusual round design.

“The women were toward the back, but it was much more egalitarian than any Orthodox synagogue had ever been,” said Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald, the director of the National Jewish Outreach Program and the longtime beginners’ rabbi at Lincoln Square. “Rabbi Riskin was an intellectual and wanted to show that Orthodoxy could respond to all the needs of modernity.”

A women’s prayer group began at the synagogue in 1972. But until Ms. Kagan, who attended Hunter College High School and the Lincoln Square Hebrew school, made her request, it had never had a formal bat mitzvah, Rabbi Riskin said in a telephone interview.

“We crafted a lovely service, but I don’t think I satisfied her completely,” said Rabbi Riskin, who left the synagogue in 1983 to move to Israel, where he is chief rabbi of a West Bank settlement. “But she certainly raised my consciousness.”

Since then, bat mitzvahs have evolved at Lincoln Square. Today a girl can choose to lead the service and read from the Torah, as long as the ceremony is held during a women’s service in an annex of the synagogue. There cannot be more than nine men in attendance, and they must sit behind the mechitza. (“If there are 10 men” – known as a minyan – “that becomes a men’s service,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin, who taught Ms. Kagan.)

Girls can also choose to celebrate in the main synagogue after the Saturday service, but there she would give a discourse rather than read from the Torah.

Rabbi Riskin said he let Ms. Kagan know about his pursuits in Israel after she became solicitor general. “I sent her a congratulatory note,” he said, “and I made reference to the fact that I now have a women’s college in Israel in which we are going very far with women’s rights, and I urged her to visit.”

Ms. Kagan now considers herself a Conservative Jew. But like Supreme Court nominees before her, she has not granted interviews with the news media. Rabbi Riskin said they attended services occasionally.

In the late 1980s or early 1990s, however, long after Ms. Kagan had left home, her parents, who have since died, began attending the West End Synagogue, now located next door. Their new synagogue was Reconstructionist, a more liberal offshoot of Conservative Judaism, which retained traditions like keeping kosher and reciting prayers in Hebrew but embraced equality between the genders from its inception early in the 20th century.

Cantor Goffin recalled another aspect of Ms. Kagan’s momentous bat mitzvah – the way she consoled a 13-year-old boy whose reception before his bar mitzvah coincided with her own celebration. Apparently, his parents’ divorce was turning the event into a painful ordeal, with each grandmother insisting he sit with her.

“Elena went over to him and asked him to sit down and comforted him and showed him a great deal of compassion and concern,” Cantor Goffin recalled. “That is the Elena Kagan that one should think of when considering her nomination to our highest court.”

{NY Times/Noam Newscenter}


  1. It is almost always apikorses yids who are the greatest threats to Torah Judaism. They dont defend Torah or Judaism but attack it. HOw can any Jew think having a liberal antiTorah yid in such a position of influence, be a good thing? What we have above is a good case study of what we can expect if any religious cases are brought up before the Supreme Court. Whose side do you think she will stand on? Do people really think she will stand with Torah Emess or defend Frum Yidden and our lifestyle? When she wasnt a person of power she undermined it, just imagine how much damage she can do now? Lehavdil!

  2. kudos to rabbi riskin for removing the conservative title However who from Y.U. would send a student to lead services in a conservative synagogue.Furthermore,who legalized the ‘MECHITZA’ there

  3. Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bamidbar
    Rosh Chodesh Sivan

    Time: 5:58 PM Pacific Standard Time

    I heard that when Rabbi Riskin was offered this position with this small conservative congregation, he consulted the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ZT’L. The rebbe told him (something like): “If you don’t take the job, who then are they going to take for the job?” (In other words, if Rabbi Riskin would not go there, there was a very strong danger that the group would probably hire another conservative rabbi, who would just continue to lead them in their non-Torah ways.)

    I further heard that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, ZT’L, of YU, instructed Rabbi Riskin that he had one year to turn the shul over to a Makom Torah; otherwize, he would have to leave. (A Chabad Shaliach latter told me that in cases where a Ben Torah goes into a non-kosher shul to try to turn it kosher, the Gedolay Torah usually give him this time frame of a year.)

    I also heard from someone at YU that what Rabbi Riskin did was the following. He looked in some of the literature of the Conservative Movement and saw that one of their reasons against having a Mechitza – partition – in a shul is that it makes the room look terrible. So Rabbi Riskin brilliantly took that argument and turned it around exactly the other way! He called a meeting of the people in charge and stated that he had a proposed project to “BEAUTIFY the synagogue”! The plan was to set up, right in the middle of the sanctuary, a row of beautiful looking plants. Then, as this article relates here, soon enough, the plants eventually grew up and formed a pretty good Mechitza!