The day before my bat mitzvah I felt calm and ready. I found out about a minor mix up in my Aliya where I was originally going to read Hanukkah day 7 but it would actually be Hanukkah day 6. After getting this news I compared the two Aliyot and it turned out they were almost identical. I practiced the new Aliya for an hour or so and then went out and just practiced it while waiting for food in the shuk and when I had a minute to myself. I felt good when I went to sleep. I was more worried that my brain would betray me and go on autopilot when I was saying the blessings before reading from the Torah and would accidentally say hamotzi or something equally embarrassing.
I woke up on the morning of my bat mitzvah feeling like I was going to be sick, so nervous I was afraid to get out of bed. I finally got up after my boyfriend Sam gently encouraged me to get ready or I’d be late to my own bat mitzvah, which is apparently frowned upon. Before we headed to the Kotel, we met up with my previous Rabbi, Rabbi Koppel, outside Sam’s apartment.
People asked me if I was excited and I said yes even though inside I was so nervous. I tried to put the nerves aside and just live in the moment. I was absolutely not nervous about the protesters. I WAS nervous about messing up my Aliya or the prayers for it. I was determined to be a shining example of what women are capable of and do a great job, so even doubters would have to admit that the Aliya was well executed, even if they didn’t like that a woman was the one chanting.
Before I left for Israel I met with Rabbi Nathan, the head Rabbi at my temple, who told me something that I kept reminding myself: my bat mitzvah was not about perfect execution of my Aliya, it was about the seriousness of my preparation and all the heart and soul I put into getting ready for this day. This comforted me until I thought: I didn’t make these people listen to me chant my Aliya a million times! They would have every right to believe I just showed up and didn’t prepare if I was terrible.
Once we got to the Kotel I met up with Heather and Dan who are wonderful and very supportive friends. It was wonderful to see friendly faces who were there to help and support me. We arrived just as the bus with the women arrived so we walked with them to security, while Anat Hoffman who leads Women of the Wall, held the Torah I had practiced with and was to read from that morning. I knew the possibility existed that the Torah would not be allowed into the Kotel, but I chose to operate under the assumption that our Torah would eventually get in that morning. Ultra-Orthodox, Haredi men shouted at us as we argued with security to enter with our Torah. I was unfazed and still felt safe. I was surrounded by my boyfriend, Sam, my friends Dan, Heather and Rabbi Koppel and I felt safe and loved. When we were arguing with the head of security, we asked why he wasn’t allowing our Torah in and he admitted he was just following orders and he didn’t really care either way…which offered me a small glimmer of hope that he would allow our Torah in. But it was not to be. After another 15 minutes of this exchange, we went through security without the Torah scroll. As I watched my Torah walk away, with one of Women of the Wall’s male supporters, I did not feel the deep sorrow I thought I would feel. Instead I was more determined than ever to be great.
As prayer started I continued to be nervous but I clung to the prayers and tried my best to find my quiet place amidst the noise of the Kotel. Women were shouting at us, using deafening whistles and holding signs, but again it didn’t faze me and I was not afraid. Men shouted at us and even boys shouted that they should kill us and still I was not fazed. I still remained nervous about the task at hand. As we got closer to my time, I pulled out my phone and read from the picture of my Aliya, just to prove to myself that I remembered how to read Hebrew. Ten minutes before I went up I was convinced I would forget the entire Aliya and the Aleph Bet and I would fail miserably. As I nervously looked around, my friend Heather saw the anxiety building inside me and looked me right in the eyes told me that I was smart and I would chant better than anyone had ever chanted before and I knew that last part would be impossible, but I deeply appreciated the support. Rabbi Koppel gave me hugs and smiled at me just beaming with pride. As I looked around to other women, they smiled at me and gave me reassuring looks as if to say “we’re all in this together and we will not let you go down in flames.”
It was my turn. I walked up and tried to smile with confidence but I was a mess. Rachel and Yochi, who organize Women of the Wall’s prayer services, gently guided me to my place. Rachel said that since there wasn’t a Torah to read from, we would be reading from a printout and I would not be saying the usual blessing before Torah reading. I looked down at the printed out sheet and it was in Hebrew and it even had the vowels on it and it was very tempting, but then I realized: I actually DO have the Torah with me!
While practicing with the real Torah scroll at Women of the Wall’s offices back in October, I had taken a picture of the whole text column containing my Aliya, with its special calligraphy and no vowel marks, so that I could practice while I was at home. So I did something I’m sure no one else has ever done at the Kotel: I read my Aliyah from a digital picture of the scroll I was supposed to have at my bat-mitzvah! (I bet none of the patriarchs or matriarchs could have imagined something like that!). I was comforted because despite the circumstances, I still got to read from the Torah.
The last thing I thought before I started was exactly what Rabbi Nathan told me: my heart matters more than what actually happens. I confidently read my Aliya and my heart swelled with joy. It felt like my heart and soul were pouring out in the form of the words from my Aliya. The noise faded into the background and it was just me and a group of wonderfully supportive women at the Kotel. It was truly beautiful. Once I was finished I couldn’t stop myself and I said “I did the thing!!!” – which I did not realize was picked up by the microphones until after the ceremony when my friends back at home said that was the most Caryn thing I could have done! I was so happy and relieved I had done so well.
It all turned out fine in the end. My preparation had paid off. Full of joy and song I danced with Rachel and I honestly felt so proud and joyful it’s hard to even describe the feeling. It felt like all the Jewish people who were and ever would be were celebrating with me. After I was finished and we returned to prayer I walked over to the women who were using their whistles and yelling at us while holding signs and I thanked them for attending my bat mitzvah. I would not let their hate win on that day. The Jewish people are diverse and a bar or bat mitzvah should be attended by any and all Jewish people who wish to attend. I thanked those women for taking the time out of their day to attend my bat mitzvah, even if they were trying to stop it.
The day after my bat mitzvah I attended the bnei mitzvah of 3 women and 1 man in a hotel synagogue who were visiting Israel on Birthright. There was concern about Orthodox men coming in to protest the mixed seating or trying to “rescue” the Torah. This group had THREE Torah scrolls they could have used. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel some envy. The State of Israel had denied me a bat mitzvah Aliya at the Western Wall. It didn’t seem fair that the bullies at the Kotel made sure that I did not have a Torah scroll for my bat mitzvah, while these four people had three Torah available to them.
But I do not feel cheated or short changed because I did not have a Torah (in the physical and traditional sense) for my bat mitzvah. I had a genuine Kotel bat mitzvah surrounded by love, warmth and support. My bat mitzvah is indicative of the current state of the Kotel and the lack of adherence to Israeli law shown by the Kotel administration. I will never regret my decision to have a Women of the Wall bat mitzvah and I will always remember the pure joy and happiness I felt that day. That sweet joy could have only come from God and I will thank God the rest of my life for giving me this opportunity.
The Kotel Rabbi would like me to take “my place” as a Jewish woman and not read from the Torah and quietly go through life obeying his orders. But God made me a woman and I am not less than a man. I was made equal, so I will expect to be treated as an equal. God gave me a voice, so I will not go quietly. God gave me a brain, so I will be critical of those who fight to divide and demean women. God made me a loving, Torah scroll reading, Jewish woman and that is a truly wonderful thing to be.
I would like to sincerely thank my boyfriend Sam for his unwavering support and pride through this process. Lots of love and thanks go to my mom for having raised me to be a strong willed woman and supporting me, even though she was worried. I also want to thank Rachel Yeshurun and Yochi Rappaport for their support and encouragement. To Sam’s classmates who came to support me, to my friends who were there physically and those who attended virtually, to the women who smiled warmly every time I looked at them, to the women who fixed my hair and tallit before I walked up I give my sincere gratitude. Finally, I want to thank all of the Women of the Wall who work tirelessly to help women like me realize our dreams.