First of Many

On March 18, 1922, exactly 100 years ago, a twelve-year-old girl named Judith Kaplan stood in front of her synagogue and recited the blessings before and after the Torah reading. She also read from the Torah in both Hebrew and English, thus marking her passage as a Jewish adult. It is a ritual which today is commonplace, but at the time was revolutionary. Judith had become the first girl to celebrate a bat mitzvah in America.

As she later observed, “no thunder sounded. No lightning struck,” but that does not mean her actions did not have a major impact on the Jewish community. In the last 100 years the bat mitzvah has become an essential rite of passage for virtually all Jewish girls. While the ritual mirrors the bar mitzvah in the liberal streams of Judaism, it has also reached the Orthodox as well, where young girls often celebrate with a festive meal or a d’var Torah rather than reading from the Torah scroll.

Of course, Judith was not just a random girl who chose to break new ground with her bat mitzvah. She was the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, one of the most important, and radical, American Jewish leaders of the 20th century. Kaplan was a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary who trained generations of Conservative rabbis, and he later founded the Reconstructionist movement together with his student, and Judith’s eventual husband, Ira Eisenstein.

Kaplan made many groundbreaking changes to American Judaism. He introduced the idea of the synagogue as a community center, the proverbial “shul with a pool”. In the theological realm, he preferred to see Judaism not as a religion but as a civilization and God not as a personal being but as a force for good in the universe. His heretical ideas led to rabbis burning his books, so the irony of his influence is especially great. The Orthodox community that once shunned him has been forced to grudgingly accept the necessity of arguably his most important innovation: the bat mitzvah.

Judith herself went on to have a distinguished career as a Jewish educator and thinker. She taught musical pedagogy and the history of Jewish music and authored a number of books. Our community has benefited greatly from her courage to be the first bat mitzvah. Since that day 100 years ago, many other girls were the first in their synagogues to stand on the bima and read Torah and haftarah. Those milestones led to women serving as presidents of synagogues and eventually to the roles of rabbi and cantor.

While Judith died in 1996, her milestone was not forgotten. The synagogue where her bat mitzvah was celebrated has created a website to celebrate the occasion. Last week at Adath Israel we celebrated her and all the other pioneers for women’s rights in the Jewish community. May their example encourage us to continue to make our sacred spaces places of inclusion and leadership for everyone.

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