Cleveland regional director, American Jewish Committee
Shortly before Lee C. Shapiro’s bat mitzvah, her mother needed to meet with the rabbi and cantor of her Conservative Stamford, Conn. synagogue, Temple Beth El. Her mother was concerned the 12 year-old Shapiro wasn’t doing well in preparing for the day.
She seemed to be studying and spending more time in lessons than her peers and seemed to worry about it – a lot. However, during the meeting, the rabbi and cantor just chuckled and asked Shapiro if she had not told her mother about her special circumstances: she was going to lead the full Friday evening Shabbat service, during a time – November 1970 – when girls typically chanted haftorah on Friday nights and did not read Torah like the boys did.
“Because I opened my mouth, I led the entire service and the girls after that did as well,” she says. “It was everything from beginning with lighting the candles, through all of the readings and the haftorah, and then you gave a little speech.”
Shapiro, who is now Cleveland regional director of American Jewish Committee, says that experience of speaking out and acting on her ambitions was where her Jewish journey started.
“I was annoyed that boys got to do things that we didn’t get to do and that was sort of the beginning of a journey that was both a Jewish journey and a life journey of connection and that bat mitzvah process,” she says. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
However, being such a leader doesn’t mean everything naturally aligned perfectly for Shapiro. Just a month before her bat mitzvah, she had her tonsils out and was worried she wouldn’t be able to sing on her special day – quite an issue for someone who already couldn’t carry a tune, she says.
“I remember waking up in a panic in the hospital. I kept asking for the cantor because I needed to practice, because I was so nervous about it,” she says.
Other details Shapiro remembers include the dress she wore, the range of desserts available afterward and the concert at her party.
“I was wearing, like, my first adult dress and I loved my dress,” she says, adding that after the service, she had a dessert table at the Jewish community center next to the synagogue with “every dessert in the world.”
Shapiro had the party for all of her friends the following Saturday night, where she says a close friend recruited her brother’s popular band to play as a gift to Shapiro.
“It was really loud, it was noisy – it was really fun,” she says. “It was really very special because my parents wanted the bat mitzvah to be about my friends and me.”
Although Shapiro says she remained connected to her Jewish community throughout her life, pursuing a 25-year-long career in political journalism in New York City, she never thought she would work as a Jewish leader.
“I did not start out thinking that my life’s work and mission would be as a Jewish professional and yet I was always very connected to my Judaism and to a set of life values and dreams,” she says. “I do believe that in speaking up and speaking out at that bat mitzvah – and making that connection and being part of a peoplehood and being part of a community – is very important to me and has become my life.”
Shapiro says working and speaking out in the Jewish community now allows the path her bat mitzvah set her on to come “full circle” – and that day still makes her incredibly happy to think about.
“I think it was everything that I wanted it to be,” Shapiro says. “When I look back on it, I’m sitting here grinning from ear to ear.”
This article appeared in the Spring / Summer 2017 issue of Bar•Bat Mitzvah.