It was fascinating discussing this question with so many deeply engaged, thinking people: rabbis, educators, and parents. Some rabbis prefer bat mitzvah at 13 because it keeps girls in Hebrew school another year. Several people I consider "professional" Conservative Jews told me they had never really pondered the question. One clergy member told me that in her congregation, bat mitzvahs are usually at 13, although 12-year-old girls are counted in the minyan. "We are consistently inconsistent!" she said.
The contemporary feminist arguments for bat mitzvah at 13 are strong. As my rabbi, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, added to a Facebook discussion:
"one has to ask why rabbinic tradition assigned girls maturity to 12. I think it is not a modern assessment of intellectual or emotional maturity - though these may be real - but a less nuanced report about menarche. In other words: It was time to get busy! I would prefer that such considerations vanish from contemporary ritual decisions."On the other hand, Professor of Rabbinics Rabbi Gail Labovitz said this, also on Facebook:
"I lean towards 12, though I get that it does not seem egalitarian, and I am very much, generally, committed to egalitarianism. The age [of bar/ bat mitzvah] does indeed have a link to the onset of puberty, but this is true for both boys and girls - indeed, well into the rabbinic period one can find contesting voices in rabbinic lit. as to whether bar and bat mitzvah should be decided by a universal age limit, or by demonstrating actual physical signs of puberty. At the same time, the rabbis did imagine that a girl "became" bat mitzvah at 12 just like a boy becomes "bar mitzvah" at 13 . . . . So in our day, if we are expanding the realm of mitzvot that we think women should be responsible for . . . . then those responsibilities kick in at 12 - and girls who don't fulfill them until a year later might be thought of as sinning..."
Compellingly, several people told me that bat mitzvah at 12 is a feminist ritual, because it celebrates girls' coming of age in a different way to how boys' maturity is celebrated; it breaks the pattern of using the masculine as the standard.
Then there are the practical issues. One rabbi/parent told me that her daughter was unhappy with her Hebrew school class, so holding her bat mitzvah at 12 was a way to "graduate" and move on to Prozdor (Hebrew school for high schoolers, in NYC). She was not the only rabbi who told me that they based their decision of when to hold their own daughters' bat mitzvah ceremonies primarily on the particular circumstances and needs of that child.
Bella goes to a Conservative day school where the practice is for girls to celebrate an in-school bat mitzvah at 12. Bella is eager to get the party started, so to speak, and wants to do what her friends will do. The bat mitzvah is a celebration of a change in status for the child, and as such, it makes sense to have the in-school bat mitzvah at the same time as the synagogue celebration.
In addition, I'm all for celebrating milestones at once. In general, I try to make the kids' birthday celebrations as close to their birthdays as possible--no month-long birthdays for me, if you know what I'm sayin'.
Taking all of the above into consideration, and needing to make a practical decision, we decided to hold Bella's bat mitzvah soon after her 12th birthday. In March 2015, we will be the proud parents of a bat mitzvah girl. Mazel Tov!
And now I officially feel old.