Growing Up, Kagan Tests Boundaries of Her Faith


May  13, 2010, New York Times

Lisa W. Foderaro

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. It is unclear when the Kagans joined Lincoln Square, which introduced adult education programs and held lectures on topics like Jewish history, sexuality and the afterlife. 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 sexes 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."


2010