Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, wanted a bat mitzvah when she turned 12. But that simply was not done in May 1973 at Lincoln Square Synagogue, the Orthodox congregation to which the Kagan family belonged.
“I remember she was very definite,” recalled Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “She came to me and very much wanted it; she was very strong about it. She wanted to recite a Haftorah like the boys, and she wanted her bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning.”
Never having officiated at a bat mitzvah before, Rabbi Riskin said he had to “figure out what to do for a bat mitzvah. … I was playing it by ear.”
He said he “could not give her everything” she wanted. For instance, Rabbi Riskin said she could have her bat mitzvah on a Friday night, not a Saturday morning. And instead of reciting a Haftorah, she chanted, in Hebrew, selections from the Book of Ruth.
“I was very proud of her,” he said. “She did very well. After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time. … She was part of my education. This was for us a watershed moment.”
Not only was Kagan a trailblazer at Lincoln Square Synagogue, but she would go on to become the first woman dean of the Harvard Law School and the first woman U.S. Solicitor General, the country’s top litigator, a position she currently holds.
Sherwood Goffin, Lincoln Square’s cantor for the past 45 years, said the Kagans lived within walking distance of the synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was Elena’s bat mitzvah tutor and recalls that she was a “wonderful student — serious, sincere, motivated and very bright. She was a very good Hebrew student, even though classes were only twice a week. She was in the school for three or four years.”
At her bat mitzvah, he said, “she spoke about Ruth, gave an analysis of the book and said what being a Bat Torah meant to her. Back then we didn’t call it a bat mitzvah, we called it a Bat Torah ceremony.”
Cantor Goffin said the Kagans joined the synagogue when the congregation began an outreach to the unaffiliated in the community and began a Hebrew school.
“We were the first ones to do outreach, and the Kagans were among the first to get involved,” he said. “The outreach was to people of all backgrounds and many of them became ‘frum’ [observant] afterwards. … The Kagans came to many different events.”
Sometime thereafter the Kagans, both the children of immigrants, left Lincoln Square Synagogue and joined the West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation across the street. Fran Hoffinger, a synagogue vice president, said Elena’s father, Robert, a lawyer, was soon elected to serve as a trustee. And she said he and his wife, Gloria, were regular attendees.
“They were lovely people and unfortunately both are now deceased,” she said.
By the time the Kagans joined West End Synagogue, Elena was pursuing her legal career after having attended Hunter College Elementary and High School. At her graduation from the high school in 1977, she received the Distinguished Alumni Award.
“In my family, it was better than getting the Nobel Prize,” she is quoted as saying on the Hunter College Web site.
Her mother taught at Hunter Elementary for many years until her retirement in 1991, and her brother, Irving, teaches constitutional law in the high school.
“Some of my favorite teachers were from the social studies department, and I credit them with introducing me to American history, which today is one of my passions,” Kagan said, according to the Hunter College Web site.
Hunter President Jennifer Raab, who attended Hunter High School and Harvard Law School with Kagan, said this week that the “entire Hunter College community take[s] great pride” in Kagan’s nomination.
Kagan earned degrees at Princeton University and Oxford University in England before graduating from Harvard Law School in 1986.
She worked as a clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Abner Mikva and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall before entering the practice of law for two years in 1989. She then taught law at the University of Chicago before joining the Clinton administration in 1995.
Asked to recall an incident that provides some insight into Elena Kagan’s personality, Rabbi Riskin said it happened at a dinner at the synagogue immediately after Kagan’s bat mitzvah.
The dinner was hosted by the boy whose bar mitzvah was the following morning.
“The bar mitzvah boy’s parents were divorced, but both sides got together for the meal in the shul,” Rabbi Riskin said.
While they dined in a ground-floor room, the rabbi said he and Cantor Goffin were in the third-floor social hall having dinner with congregants. At one point, both men decided to drop in on the bar mitzvah boy and his parents to extend their greetings.
“We went downstairs and the bar mitzvah boy wasn’t there,” Rabbi Riskin said. “While I was looking for him someone told me that he had been sitting next to his maternal grandmother when his paternal grandmother came over and said he should be at his father’s table. There was then a big tug of war and the boy was caught in the middle.”
Rabbi Riskin said he then decided to return to his dinner and was “walking upstairs when I heard sobs coming from the darkened sanctuary. It was the bar mitzvah boy crying. I spoke with him and brought him downstairs. I remember Elena Kagan walking over to him. She was his friend and had been invited to the dinner. She took over comforting him, and when I left them, he was sitting next to her at her table.”
Cantor Goffin said he remembers that incident a little differently, but vividly recalls Kagan’s reaction to seeing her friend upset.
“Elena went over and asked him to sit down,” Cantor Goffin said. “She comforted him and showed him a great deal of compassion and concern. This is the Elena Kagan people should think of when she is being considered for nomination to the Supreme Court.”
Rabbi Riskin said he has not been in touch with Kagan over the years but said he believes she would be a good addition to the court.
“She was a leader, she was smart and sensitive. I can’t think of greater attributes for the Supreme Court than being smart and sensitive.”
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