Bat Mitzvah Rite Turns 90

Ceremony Opened Door to Expansion of Jewish Women's Roles

Celebrating Through Years: The Hyman family celebrates a bat mitzvah in 1955.
courtesy of judith hyman darsky
Celebrating Through Years: The Hyman family celebrates a bat mitzvah in 1955.

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Published April 02, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

It has been 90 years since Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan had his eldest daughter, Judith, stand before his congregation and read part of the week’s Torah portion in Hebrew and in English — making her the first American girl to publicly celebrate her bat mitzvah.

It was nothing like bat mitzvahs of today: She read from a Bible, rather than from a Torah scroll; she stood at the front of the congregation, but not on the bimah. But it took place in an era when there were no women rabbis, of course, and virtually no synagogue leadership possibilities outside of the women’s auxiliary.

While Judith Kaplan Eisenstein would later say that the ceremony didn’t mean much to her, the occasion set a precedent that would ultimately help transform Jewish ritual and open the door to an expansion of women’s synagogue leadership roles. Bat mitzvah has “evolved from a radical innovation to a nearly universal American Jewish tradition,” according to a new exhibit charting its transformation.

The exhibit, “Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age,” opened on March 6 at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, just 10 blocks from where Kaplan Eisenstein’s groundbreaking bat mitzvah took place, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, on March 18, 1922.

“We want to show that here we have 12-year-old girls really stepping forward with their parents and clergy, helping change the face of Jewish life,” said Deborah Meyer, the executive director of Moving Traditions, which creates programming about Judaism and gender for teens.

And step forward they did. For many of the women whose stories are featured in the exhibit, celebrating their bat mitzvah helped them find their voice as Jewish leaders.

As recently as the mid-1970s, in many Reform and Conservative congregations, girls were required to celebrate their bat mitzvah on Friday night — not on Saturday morning during the main Sabbath service, when the Torah is read. They would help lead services, chant Haftorah and give a small sermon.

That wasn’t enough for Sally Gottesman, who in 1975 celebrated her bat mitzvah at Temple Shomrei Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Montclair, N.J. “I wrote a letter to the rabbi saying ‘If not now, when?’ quoting Hillel,” says Gottesman, a co-founder of Moving Traditions, in audio that accompanies the exhibit.

Her rabbi consulted with the ritual committee, which agreed with the girl. But the shul’s regular cantor wouldn’t officiate. And when Gottesman was called to the Torah that Shabbat morning, a synagogue member got up and walked out in protest.

But she had her bat mitzvah. “It taught me that Judaism could change, and that I can play an active part in its evolution,” Gottesman said.

Moving Traditions created the exhibit in conjunction with the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. After closing at the JCC on April 27, the show will travel to small Jewish museums and to synagogues and JCCs around the country.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.