Judy Leavitt grew up in a time when Reform Judaism was going through a major transformation and women in Reform Judaism were not yet able to be a Bat Mitzvah. Her story reflects a larger story of our movement as well as the changing role of women in the movement.
Growing up in New Jersey, in a family of Jews whose lives were focused on social justice, Judy became committed to Tikkun Olam, helping to ‘repair the world’.
At the beginning of her career as a nurse, she became involved in health issues of poor women and children, advocating for better and more equitable care. As a young mother, she helped start a Planned Parenthood clinic, programs for teen moms, a program for abused women and helped start abortion services. After returning to a teaching career in nursing, and later health policy, she assisted nurses and other health professionals become involved in advocating for improvements in health care. Her involvement in the women’s movement led to her teaching the first courses in Women’s health in the State University of New York (SUNY) system.
During the time of raising sons and teaching, Judy felt there was something missing. As her sons prepared for their B’nai Mitzvah with their dad, she felt a pang of incompleteness– not being able to contribute to their Jewish education at this important time. Although Judy went through religious school and confirmation, she grew up in a time when women in Reform Judaism did not have significant leadership, including not yet ordaining a woman. Raising her family in Ithaca NY, she participated in holiday traditions including Shabbat, but was not knowledgeable about Jewish liturgy or Hebrew and felt inadequate to help her sons in their Bar Mitzvah preparations.
After Judy’s husband died, she moved to Washington DC and after that, for ten years lived and worked in Jackson MS. Because of limited time and opportunity, she was unable to be actively involved in synagogue life.
After coming to Asheville, she joined CBHT and began going to Rabbi Ratner’s Sunday morning discussion group. As her interest in the temple grew, she became actively involved in the social justice committee (now the Lotte Meyerson Tikkun Olam committee). Becoming a Bat Mitzvah was not anything she had aspired to, but after seeing other women take their rightful place on the bimah and perform the mitzvah, it became a more compelling idea.
There were “starts and stops” along the way including studying Hebrew to feel more a part of the congregation. As Judy explained,
“The turning point for me was when I attended the Bat Mitzvah of Jane Roman Pitt. It was a beautiful, meaningful day. That experience motivated me to talk to Rabbi Meiri about whether it could be something achievable for me. After assuring me that I could, I began to pursue intensive learning and decided I would celebrate my 75th birthday by becoming a Bat Mitzvah. It was time to connect my passion for social justice with the learning required to be Bat Mitzvah. The incredible support of the Rabbi and the wonderful CBHT congregation enabled me to reach the goal. “
Judy’s journey leading to the Bat Mitzvah took about 1 ½ years of intensive study. She scheduled specific learning time with Jenny Mercer to continue learning Hebrew, her Torah portion and the liturgy, as well as time with the Rabbi to explore the meaning of her parshah and to answer any and all questions she had about Judaism and Jewish traditions. “It was a unique opportunity to explore many topics” adds Judy. “It was a special way of learning.”
Many congregants and members of the community asked her about the experience and commented that they would never be able to do what she had done. Judy’s response was that it could be achieved if one is committed to the process. However, it may not be the initial goal. Rather, like her, it may only be to expand one’s learning of Hebrew and liturgy.
“When I started, my goal was just to expand my understanding of Judaism and learn Hebrew. But as my knowledge and self-confidence grew, my desire to be Bat Mitzvah was enhanced because of so much support from our congregation.”
It was serendipitous that her Torah portion was about the rules and commandments that a civil society (in Biblical times) adopted. What was remarkable about this portion was that most of the rules involve the essence of social justice—most of the same issues that plague us today as a society and that Judy worked on for much of her life. Judy adds,
“Once you read these rules, one has a deeper appreciation for the connections between the writings in the Torah and how we must act today.”
There are other CBHT members who, as adults, brought their special situations to culminate in a B’nai Mitzvah.
- Rubin Feldstein had a 2nd Bar Mitzvah, reciting his same parshah 70 years later
- Jane Roman Pitt and Adele Rose (of blessed memory).
- Leah Davis, Laurie Johnson and Amanda Diamond-Ring who dedicated their bat mitzvah in memory of their fellow Adult Bat Mitzvah member Ashley Gilreath.
For Judy, understanding the roots of social justice made her learning much more meaningful. During the study of her parshah, Mitzpatim, she explored the connections between teachings in the Torah and the commandment to be involved in Tikkun Olam. Judy adds,
“I am finally able to integrate my life-long commitment to Tikkun Olam with my willingness to speak out as a Jew in the public sphere. My study of the Torah in preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, provided for understanding the Jewish roots of ‘not standing idly by’. “
Judy sums up this journey by saying,
“This congregation, the Rabbi, and Carolina Jews for Justice have helped me understand that America is a country that demands that as a woman and a Jew, I must speak out. Through my personal study, I appreciate the fundamental voice that women have brought to Reform Judaism and will continue to insist that in order to be a whole community, we need to include women’s as well as men’s perspective. No matter what our age, we must never stop learning. We can use the knowledge to better ourselves and bring that knowledge to understanding the world around us and deciding how we must act.”
Judy Leavitt is an active member of CBHT and is active on the temple’s Lotte Meyerson Tikkun Olam Committee, plays a critical role in Carolina Jews for Justice and was Bat Mitzvah’d on February 24, 2017 at CBHT.