The Rabbi’s Daughter Who Became a Bat Mitzvah Pioneer

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Judith Kaplan Eisenstein at the 70th anniversary of her bat mitzvah in 1992. Credit: Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

When Judith Kaplan was 12 years old, it was an exciting time to be a young girl. Women had just gotten the right to vote. The first woman was serving in the United States Senate. And it was the Jazz Age, which ushered in ideas of a freer, more independent New Woman.

And then on March 18, 1922, Judith herself made history.

That’s the date that she became the first girl in America to have a Bat Mitzvah. Until then, when Jewish boys turned 13 years old, they had Bar Mitzvahs. The ceremony symbolizing a boy’s maturation into a Jewish adult now responsible for observing the commandments. But girls? Jewish custom said they reached maturity at age 12, but there was no equivalent ceremony or celebration for them.

That didn’t sit well with Judith’s father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who led the newly founded Society for the Advancement of Judaism in Manhattan. As a child, he had worshipped at the Eldridge Street Synagogue (which today houses our Museum). In 1894 he had his own Bar Mitzvah in our beautiful building. But as a rabbi, his approach to Judaism parted with the Orthodoxy he grew up with. For one thing, Rabbi Kaplan emphasized the equality of women in all aspects of Jewish life. (In fact, his philosophy of injecting modern ideas into Jewish tradition was the foundation for his launching, some years later, the Reconstructionist movement.) As his daughter approached the age of 12, Rabbi Kaplan decided his family should put his ideas of equality into practice: Judith would participate in a Shabbat ceremony as a boy would. Judith would have a Bat Mitzvah.

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Judith and her family in the early 1930s. l. to r.: sister Naomi; mother Lena; husband Rabbi Ira Eisenstein; Judith; father Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan; sisters Selma and Hadassah. Credit: The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

In some ways, that first Bat Mitzvah was a baby step. Judith didn’t read from the Torah, as boys customarily did during their Bar Mitzvahs. Instead, she read from a printed Chumash (the five books of Moses) and recited some blessings. And there certainly was little of the fanfare that we’ve come to associate with Bat Mitzvahs. Unlike many of today’s Jewish seventh graders, Judith didn’t spend nearly a year preparing for the event. According to the book Eyewitness to Jewish History, Judith only learned the prayers she would recite at her Bat Mitzvah the night before! And the big bashes on today’s Bat Mitzvah circuit? A far cry from the small celebratory dinner that Judith’s parents hosted at their home that evening. But despite its modesty, Judith’s Bat Mitzvah was groundbreaking – a huge departure from tradition. It “was enough to shock a lot of people,” Judith later recalled. “Including my own grandparents and aunts and uncles.”

Luckily, being a trailblazer didn’t turn out to be as alarming as Judith’s grandparents feared. “No thunder sounded, no lightening struck,” Judith joked years later. And in the absence of what might be taken as divine wrath, Judith’s example inspired scores of other girls – and transformed Jewish practice nationwide. By 1948, about one-third of Conservative congregations had conducted a Bat Mitzvah. And now, Bat Mitzvahs are widespread in Reform, Conservative and even Modern Orthodox congregations.

Today, the importance of Judith’s Bat Mitzvah is unmistakable. By enacting a ritual that had, for so long, been reserved for boys only, Judith provided an example of what girls could do if given the opportunity. Judith, who would go on to become a renowned author, composer and musicologist, probably didn’t have any idea on March 18, 1922 that she would change the lives of generations of Jewish girls. But generations of Jewish girls, whether they know it or not, have Judith to thank for being allowed fuller roles within their Jewish communities.

Want to learn more about the history of Bat Mitzvahs – and Bar Mitzvahs, too? Email me at nbeiles@eldridgestreet.org to book a private tour for your family to explore how the experience of Jewish children has changed through the generations. Or, have your own life celebration in our beautiful sanctuary, just like Judith’s father over 100 years ago. Contact Bonnie Dimun at bdimun@eldridgestreet.org or 212-219-0888 for more information about having your event at the Museum.

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