A century after first bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony has come a long way

Judith Kaplan Eisenstein at her second bat mitzvah ceremony in 1992
Judith Kaplan Eisenstein at her second bat mitzvah ceremony in 1992 (Courtesy of Sharon Musher)

By Sasha Rogelberg and Jesse Berman

For some Jewish tweens, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s reality was their worst nightmare.

The evening before, Eisenstein’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, told his daughter that she would be having a bat mitzvah ceremony — chanting Torah and prayers in front of the entire congregation — giving her few hours to prepare.

The tight timing of the ordeal was only one part of the anomalous situation: Eisenstein would also become the first young Jewish woman to have a bat mitzvah, the ceremonial honor until then only afforded to young men. Previously, women only participated in a b’nai mitzvah, a group ceremony for young Jews, regardless of gender.

On March 18, 1922, a Saturday morning, Eisenstein left her seat in the front row of the women’s section of the Society of the Advancement of Judaism synagogue in New York to stand on the men’s side, some distance away from the bimah, to read from the Chumash, the book with the printed text from the Torah.

One hundred years after Eisenstein became a bat mitzvah in front of her community, her accomplishment is being recognized, both through events honoring the milestone and by the continuous paradigm shift the Jewish institution of b’nai mitzvah is undergoing in some communities.

Despite the unprecedented nature of Eisenstein’s Jewish coming of age, the event was not particularly controversial in the community.

Kaplan was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, which was defined by its views of Judaism as an ever-evolving culture and religion. He had an interest in the suffrage movement of the time and in first-wave feminism, which advocated for the increased presence of women in public roles.

Kaplan saw Eisenstein, his eldest daughter, as his disciple and mentee, according to Stockton University history professor and great-niece of Eisenstein, Sharon Musher.

The four daughters of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan as young girls
The four daughters of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan as young girls (Courtesy of Sharon Musher)

“He had four daughters and he wanted them to participate in this rite of passage,” Musher said.

In line with his Reconstructionist sensibilities, Kaplan took the consensus of the SAJ community, who agreed that Eisenstein could have a bat mitzvah in front of the congregation. Only Eisenstein’s grandmothers had qualms with the ceremony, Musher said.

That is not to say, however, that the Jewish community as a whole immediately welcomed the concept of a bat mitzvah.

Valerie Thaler
Valerie Thaler (Courtesy of Valerie Thaler)

“It took quite some time for people, more broadly, to accept this practice of having a girl become a bat mitzvah,” said Valerie Thaler, synagogue director at Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills. “In the ‘20s and ‘30s, the only other people that followed and had other girls do it, were those who trained with Rabbi Kaplan, who were taught by him, like his disciples. And kind of scattered around the country they would have bat mitzvah[s] in their congregations.”

Thaler viewed the resistance to bat mitzvahs as part of a broader resistance to including women in Jewish services more generally, and to people being simply unaccustomed to seeing women as more than passive participants in a Jewish service. Within the non-Orthodox movements, at the time, women did not count in the minyan, did not read from the Torah, did not hold positions of leadership in services, and “did not count as full-fledged members of the Jewish community,” she said.

Sharon Musher’s daughter Elena (center) at her bat mitzvah in 2016
Sharon Musher’s daughter Elena (center) at her bat mitzvah in 2016 (Courtesy of Sharon Musher)

These early bat mitzvahs would have normally taken place during a Friday evening service, Thaler said, rather than during the Saturday morning Shabbat service as they typically are today, which she described as “more a main Sabbath service.” She added that many Jewish girls would have had their bat mitzvahs as a group, rather than a single individual having a ceremony that was specifically theirs.

As more and more Jewish girls stood on the bimah to have their bat mitzvahs, it began to become more accepted, said Thaler. Though they did not really start to become widespread until the 1950s, becoming commonplace by the 1970s. By the 1980s, adult women who had been restricted from having a bat mitzvah during childhood began having them, making up for lost time.

Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah had marked differences to the likes of those seen today in Reform, Reconstructionist and some Conservative spaces: She didn’t read from the Torah scroll or wear a tallit or kippah. Eisenstein did not have an aliyah again until five months before the bat mitzvah of her daughter Miriam many years later, and Eisenstein had a second bat mitzvah in 1992, four years before her death.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah, SAJ – Judaism That Stands for All hosted a Rise Up/Bat Mitzvah At 100: National Shabbat on March 17 over Zoom and in person. With Ironbound Films, they launched an Instagram campaign @judithkaplan1922 to illustrate what young Judith Kaplan’s life at 12 would have been like had she had Instagram as a child.

Dylan Tanzer as Judith Kaplan
Dylan Tanzer as Judith Kaplan (Courtesy of Ironbound Films)

Dylan Tanzer, the West Orange, N.J.-based actor who plays the bat mitzvah girl in the Instagram project, believes Eisenstein was an “inspiration to all Jewish girls now.”

Only seven months away from her own bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue, Dylan, 12, will read as much of her Torah portion as she can. Learning more about Eisenstein’s story, Dylan was shocked that the first bat mitzvah, something of an inevitability in her Jewish upbringing, was near-unheard of a century ago.

“I cannot express that it was 100 years ago,” she said. “I just thought it was normal; I didn’t even think about it.”

But Eisenstein didn’t just open the door for young girls. For Jewish women not allowed to celebrate their bat mitzvah when they turned 12, Eisenstein’s legacy gave them a chance to have one later
in life.

Hannah Heller
Hannah Heller (Rivka Braverman)

Hannah Heller, a resident of Baltimore’s Greenspring neighborhood and member of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation, Netivot Shalom and Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation, was living in South Bend, Ind., when she reached bat mitzvah age over 50 years ago. She lived in an Orthodox household, and having a bat mitzvah ceremony was not open for discussion, she said in an email.

“This just wasn’t done in orthodox communities,” Heller said. “It was only just starting … in conservative and reform communities, I think.”

Heller did eventually have her bat mitzvah ceremony, in December of 2014 at Chevrei Tzedek. She added that it was a great experience for her to have.

“It wasn’t the same feeling that someone has when doing it for the very first time,” Heller said. “The Bat Mitzvah was a chance to formally acknowledge by reaching a milestone back in a time when I couldn’t do this.”

Rachel Krug (Rachel Krug)

Rachel Krug, another Chevrei Tzedek member and resident of Baltimore, had a bat mitzvah when she was 12 at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Calif., she said in an email. However, it wasn’t necessarily the most involved of ceremonies.

“When I was a girl I only recall two or three others being bat mitzvah,” Krug said. “Those were usually celebrated by house parties over the weekend … certainly not the big deal for a bar mitzvah in those same years where the celebratory parties would have been held as a fancy kiddush following services on Shabbat.

“For friends of the bat mitzvah or just family members there may also have been other more private parties,” Krug added.

As such, after joining her current synagogue, Krug elected to have a second bat mitzvah in 2011, saying that in Chevrei Tzedek she had found a community that would support her in it.

“At Chevrei this was not just a statement of my being Jewish,” Krug said. “[It] also was a chance for me to strengthen my core value[s], as well as to demonstrate by example that one never stops learning and growing. On a larger perspective, I wanted to show my commitment that Judaism must continue to define itself by looking forward while sitting on the shoulders of past history lessons.”

When she reflects on the legacy of her great aunt, Musher thinks beyond just the inaugural bat mitzvah. Eisenstein became a prominent and prolific Jewish composer, musicologist and educator. Though her bat mitzvah was the genesis of her engagement with the larger Jewish community, the impact of her scholarship and commitment to Jewish life was profound after her coming-of-age.

“It’s really important that [b’nai mitzvah] mark, not the end of young people’s Jewish education,” Musher said, “but the beginning of an adult commitment to Jewish peoplehood.”

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