NEW YORK — Elena Kagan, President Obama’s nominee for the U.S. 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 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to which the Kagan family belonged.
“I remember she was very definite,” recalled Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the congregation’s spiritual leader at the time. “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, Riskin, now the chief rabbi of the West Bank town of Efrat, said he had to “figure out what to do for a bat mitzvah.”
“I was playing it by ear,” he said.
Riskin said he “could not give her everything” she wanted. For instance, the rabbi 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.”
Kagan “was part of my education,” Riskin said. “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 female dean of the Harvard Law School and the first female U.S. solicitor general, the country’s top litigator, the 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. 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, Goffin 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.”
Goffin said the Kagans joined the synagogue when the congregation began an outreach to the unaffiliated in the community and started 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 left Lincoln Square and joined the West End Synagogue, a Reconstructionist congregation across the street.
Fran Hoffinger, a vice president at the West End Synagogue, said Elena’s father, Robert, was soon elected to serve as a trustee. Hoffinger said that Robert, a lawyer, and his wife, Gloria, both of whom were the children of immigrants, were regular attendees.
“They were lovely people and unfortunately both are now deceased,” she said.
By the time the Kagans joined the West End Synagogue, Elena was pursuing her legal career after having attended Hunter College Elementary and High School. 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 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall before entering the practice of law for two years in 1989. Kagan 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, Riskin said it happened at a synagogue dinner immediately after Kagan’s bat mitzvah.
The dinner was being 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,” Riskin recalled.
While they dined in a ground-floor room, the rabbi said he and Goffin were in the third-floor social hall having dinner with congregants. At one point, Riskin and the cantor 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,” 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.”
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.”
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,” 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.”
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,” he said. “I can’t think of greater attributes for the Supreme Court than being smart and sensitive.”