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!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • 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.