Although most stories of Elena Kagan’s bat mitzvah focus on her determination to wrest as much gender equity as possible from the Orthodox synagogue at which the event was celebrated, the better story is the one told by the rabbi and cantor who served that synagogue when the bat mitzvah occurred. While their recollections of the event are not identical, especially after 37 years, both Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Cantor Sherwood Goffin agree that Kagan’s capacity for empathy was at least as impressive as her tenacity when it came to trail blazing.
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.”
President Obama has spoken about the importance of Justices’ capacity for empathy. Looks like Ms. Kagan passed that test a long time ago.