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The First Bat Mitzvah in the United States

(March 18, 1922)
By Michael Feldberg

On Saturday morning, March 18, 1922, twelve-year old Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, stepped forward and stood just below the bimah at her father’s synagogue - the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City. With the Torah scroll covered but in sight, Judith recited the preliminary blessing, read a portion of the Torah in Hebrew and English from her personal Chumash and then intoned the closing blessing.

“That was enough to shock a lot of people,” she later recalled, “including my own grandparents and aunts and uncles.”

The shocking event they had just witnessed, according to historian Paula Hyman, was the first bat mitzvah conducted in the United States. Reflecting on her historic moment, Kaplan observed, “No thunder sounded. No lightning struck.” Rather, Judith Kaplan and her father, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, set the model for what has now become a widespread American Jewish practice.

As Hyman notes, “The bat mitzvah ritual was introduced into American Judaism as both an ethical and pragmatic response to gender divisions in traditional Judaism.” In Jewish law, a girl reaches majority at age 12, but until the invention of bat mitzvah there was no ritual ceremony to mark this passage. Mordecai Kaplan intended bat mitzvah to give females equal standing with males and stimulate Jewish education for women so they would be better able to transmit Jewish knowledge to their children.

While it started with Reconstructionism, Hyman attributes the further evolution of bat mitzvah to the American Conservative movement. In the mid-19th century, American Reform began moving away from traditional ceremonies such as male bar mitzvah. Instead, Reform congregations introduced group confirmation ceremonies when the boys and girls in their religious schools completed their education, around age 15. Confirmation, then, was more of a graduation ceremony than a bar mitzvah. Traditional Orthodoxy did not allow women to read the Torah. Thus, if girls of 12 or 13 were to have a coming-of-age ceremony equivalent to bar mitzvah for boys, it fell to the Conservative Movement to define what that ceremony should be.

Change came gradually. As late as the 1930’s, despite Judith Kaplan’s pathbreaking example, only a handful of Conservative synagogues had adopted bat mitzvah. By 1948, however, one-third of Conservative congregations conducted them and, by the 1960s, the ceremony became the norm within Conservatism.

The earliest American bat mitzvahs were, ritually, not quite the same as bar mitzvahs. They were usually held on Friday nights, when the Torah is not read or, if held on Saturday morning like Judith Kaplan’s, the bat mitzvah girl would read from a printed Chumash, or book containing the Bible, rather than from the Torah scroll itself.

The first recorded bat mitzvah at a Reform congregation occurred in 1931 but, as with the Conservative movement, the ritual did not catch on right away. By the 1950’s, only one third of Reform congregations conducted them. Since the 1960s, as Reform has placed increasing emphasis on traditional rituals, bat mitzvah has grown to near universality in that movement’s congregations. Several modern Orthodox congregations have now adopted some form of bat mitzvah as well. Bat mitzvah, an innovation in 1922, is now an American Jewish institution.

The introduction of bat mitzvah, which was originally meant only to mark the passage from Jewish girlhood to Jewish womanhood, raised a series of issues. As Paula Hyman puts it, “How could a girl be called to Torah as a bat mitzvah and then never have such an honor again?” Both Reform and Conservativism grappled with this problem and, by the 1970’s, most congregations in both movements called women to the Torah.

If no thunder sounded when 12-year old Judith Kaplan read at the bimah of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, Kaplan herself went on to make a joyful noise of her own. A brilliant child who learned to read English at age 2 and Hebrew at age 3, she studied at what is now the Juilliard School of Music from ages 7 to 18. She received her B.A. (1928) and M.A. (1932) in music education from Columbia University Teachers College. In 1934, Kaplan married Ira Eisenstein, then assistant rabbi in her father’s synagogue.

As Judith Eisenstein, she began a distinguished career as a teacher of musical pedagogy and the history of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America’s Teachers Institute. In 1959, at age 50, Eisenstein entered the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College, obtained her Ph.D. and remained as a member of the faculty until 1979. By the time of her death in 1996, she had composed a significant body of original liturgical music, created and broadcast a thirteen-hour radio series on the history of Jewish music and authored a number of books, including the first American Jewish songbook for children (1937).

Of course, her monumental “first” remains her own bat mitzvah.

Sources:  Michael Feldberg, PhD, reprinted with permission of the author;
My Jewish Learning.