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Top secret: The first batmitzvah

The first South African batmitzvah was held at Temple Israel, Hillbrow, in May 1938. It was one of the earliest anywhere in the world. Since the word “batmitzvah” had not yet been coined, it was described as “confirmation for a girl”.

In the days leading up to the ceremony, there was considerable fear of an adverse public reaction. The event was given scant publicity, and the girl was not named. When no backlash occurred, the relieved management committee heaped congratulations upon Rabbi Weiler – but gave none to the girl.

She was Lisellota Rosalie Lindenberg. Her father Herman had recently arrived in Johannesburg and ‘expressed his desire to have his daughter confirmed on Shavuoth’. The second batmitzvah, the next year, went to Olga Marx, daughter of community leaders Max and Rita Marx. In both cases, the families were émigré German Jews.

From the war years until the mid-sixties, the ceremonies always involved groups of girls dressed in all white, much like the Orthodox batmitzvahs which followed from the 1950s. The difference was that the Reform girls were called to the bimah to read portions of Torah, usually on the festivals of Shavuoth or Sukkot.

Girls who had batmitzvahs during the forties and fifties recall that there was considerable antipathy to females reading from Torah. As a result, only the most determined girls were willing to have batmitzvahs. However, by the late sixties, encouraged by the new “feminist” movement, a “batmitzvah” came to be identical to a “barmitzvah” in the Reform movement, and could be held on any Shabbat close to the girl’s thirteenth birthday.


The first such ‘modern’ batmitzvah seems to be that of Hilary Wainer, daughter of Issy Wainer, the much-loved youth movement convenor in Johannesburg. Her batmitzvah was held at her father’s youth camp in Margate, the Alan Isaacs Camp, in July 1967. Her ‘solo’ batmitzvah set a precedent at her home synagogue of Temple Shalom in Johannesburg, where this became the norm, soon spreading to  neighbouring Johannesburg congregations. But congregations elsewhere lagged years behind, still celebrating group ‘confirmations’ well into the seventies.

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