Lola Rogin is 13 and calls herself a feminist. She wants to be a marine biologist or a rock star. But when it came time to pick a project for her bat mitzvah, Lola, who lives in Takoma Park, decided to find out what life is like for Jewish girls in other parts of the world.
So she asked them. By phone, email and WhatsApp instant messenger, Lola quizzed girls in Canada, Mexico, Morocco, Israel and Lithuania. She asked about their religious observance, their education, family life and, of course, feminism.
“I’ve gone to a language immersion school since I was 4, so I was trying to talk about different places all over the world, and I also wanted to put a feminist aspect on it,” said Lola, an eighth-grader at the District of Columbia International School where she learns Chinese and Spanish.
She presented her findings at her bat mitzvah in June. Lola and her family belong to Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism, where bar and bat mitzvah students complete projects for the ceremony.
There was Naomi Mizrahi, who is 15 and lives in Mexico City. Naomi was the most religious of the girls she interviewed, Lola said. Naomi attends a Jewish school during the week and a Jewish camp on Shabbat. But what struck Lola was the gender disparity.
“Naomi said that men, not women, are allowed to pray at shul, and that her brothers had religious bar mitzvahs but she had a nonreligious bat mitzvah ceremony with seven other girls,” Lola wrote in her speech.
Lola said she also learned a lot from Tova Zisno, a 22-year old woman who moved to Israel from Ethiopia when she was 3. Zisno told Lola that Jewish women in Ethiopia do not have b’not mitzvah and during menstruation they have to leave their homes and stay in huts.
Lola said that Zisno recently became a mother and is now beginning to see gender differences in Israel.
“She also thinks women need to be highly educated and need to invest in their career, but she worries about the pressure to be full-time mothers too,” Lola wrote.
Lola also discovered disparities for women in Morocco through a conversation she had with 16-year-old Hannah Berdugo, who lives in Casablanca. Lola said that in Morocco only boys have b’nai mitzvah and are allowed to pray. This didn’t bother Hannah because praying did not sound “fun or meaningful” to her, Lola said.
Lola found a kindred spirit in 12-year-old Lija, who lives in Vilnius, Lithuania. Like Lola, Lija, who asked that her last name not be used, attends a secular school. Her family is not observant, but Lija did have a bat mitzvah and like Lola completed a research project for her milestone.
Lola said Lija’s secular Jewish experience mirrored her family’s.
“I’m Secular Humanistic, so we don’t believe in God. We don’t do prayers or anything. But we try to celebrate our Jewish heritage. We celebrate all holidays without the religious aspects.”
But when Lola asked Lija whether she considered herself a feminist, Lija said no.
“I was puzzled at this and I wonder if in her culture, the word feminism has become a ‘dirty word’ and she doesn’t know the true meaning,” Lola wrote.
Lola said she spoke to each girl for about 20 minutes and recorded each conversation, which she then transcribed and referred to when writing the speech. The project took her about six months. Among the challenges was finding a time to communicate with girls living in other parts of the world. And her speech originally clocked in at 25 minutes, so she had to cut it in half.
“The last month was me perfecting the speech, and how I was saying it, because I speak really fast,” she said.
Lola said she enjoys learning about world cultures, and originally thought about focusing on Jewish mythology for her project. But ultimately she decided to talk to other Jewish girls to illustrate the female Jewish experience.
It fell to Lola’s father, Josh Rogin, to help find Lola’s email pals. A staffer in Rep. Ted Deutch’s (D-Fla.) office, Rogin used work connections to find girls in the countries Lola was interested in.
“I’ve worked for Jewish members of Congress almost my entire career on the international relations committee,” he said. “In the course of my work I’ve met Jews from all over the world.”
While working on the project, Lola attended a class at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue about Jewish feminism. She said it gave her historical perspective.
“There were a bunch of really smart people talking about Genesis and how women were treated in history, and I was able to compare it to the experiences of the girl from Ethiopia,” she said.
Nearly a half year after her bat mitzvah, what does Lola think about her encounters with the other girls?
“What was most surprising was, even though they lived across the world, we had so much in common, and many of our Jewish experiences were so very similar,” she said, not surprisingly, in an email. “The whole experience made me feel so much more connected to the world.”