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‘It changed my life in ways I never expected:’ Readers share stories of personal firsts

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of Judy Kaplan becoming the first American bat mitzvah. In a column noting the occasion, our editor-in-chief, Jodi Rudoren, published a column considering the many female “firsts” women have racked up in the last century — and what comes next.

“I’d been thinking that the era of female firsthood might be nearing a close, that my daughter and her friends have far fewer frontiers to conquer, and about exactly what it takes to be the first person of a certain type to do a certain type of thing,” she wrote.

But while the era of female firsthood might be waning, our readers, responding to the column, showed us how much their own stories of overcoming adversity and breaking barriers to become the first to attain a position or realize a goal meant to them.

Joy Pollack was in the first class of women admitted to her law school. Caroline Harris was the first woman to read Torah from the bimah of New York’s storied Central Synagogue. Peru-born Fortuna Calvo-Roth became a Brazilian weekly’s first woman reporter.

And a number wrote with testimonials about their experiences becoming the first bat mitzvahs in their communities.

Yes, many recalled backlash or uncomfortable reactions to their “firsts.” But all attested to the pride they continue to feel at having shattered norms.

Here are some highlights, lightly edited for clarity:


I am now 81, but I was the first bat mitzvah at our temple on 233rd Street in the north Bronx.

Every Saturday, we teens would go down the hill to the bridge over the Bronx river and the railroad tracks. We would wave at the engineers, and they would toot their horn in reply.

Meanwhile, our rabbi had a deal with the local candy store that he could pick up his Saturday newspaper without having to pay then. When he discovered that I lived several blocks from him, he made me accompany him and carry his paper up the three flight walk-up and miss the train-watching.

Finally, I had it, and told him that according to the Bible, “neither thee nor thy manservant shall labor on the Sabbath. If you can’t carry your paper, neither can I.”

As soon as the Sabbath was over, he called my parents and told them that I would be Bat Mitzvah the next Saturday. I was called to the bimah and the congregation’s Jewish doctor handed me a Bible. My daughter has it now, and she used it to carry her flowers when she got married.

—Marion Drexler nee Levy


I grew up in a neighborhood of Philadelphia known as Mount Airy. My parents helped to start a conservative synagogue and were devoted members.

Once our synagogue was given the ability to hold Bat Mitzvahs, I, along with two slightly older girls, chanted the Friday night service. We did not learn the Torah portion of the week nor did we give any blessings over the Torah. We did not chant the Haftorah either, but we were the firsts. We had an Oneg Shabbat after; no splashy party, certainly no swag, but nice gifts. This was 1956, in the beginning of April, with a ferocious spring snow storm outside.

I graduated from college in 1965 and immediately entered law school. I was a part of the first class with female students — 12 women in a class of 200. Firsts can be difficult. Being in practice in 1973, many male colleagues did not look at me or treat me as a colleague. Clients would call and ask for Jay (coincidentally, my husband’s name) thinking that they must have read my letter incorrectly and that I had to be a man, not a woman. The challenges are around every corner, but as one meets those challenges, the rewards and satisfaction are great.

—Joy Pollack


I was the first girl to have a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Revere, Mass. I was the first woman to stand on the bimah. It was an Orthodox Synagogue. It was the first time that men and women sat together on the main floor. There was much controversy. They did not open the Ark and remove the Torah.

There were snacks afterward. No music, no dancing. It was a Friday evening.

Although there were some disagreements prior to the event, it was a joyous event, and all went well.

—Dvorah Zusah Bas Perel


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I was born & raised in Montreal, Quebec, and had the first Bat Mitzvah in a Conservative congregation. It was December, 1954 ,in the Shaare Zion Congregation, which my parents were instrumental in starting. Our rabbi, Maurice Cohen, approached my father, and said that he really wanted me to have a Bat Mitzvah.

It was on a Friday night. I participated in the service, gave a d’var torah, and sang the haftorah for the weekly parsha.

To this day, if I close my eyes, I can envision myself standing on the bimah facing the congregation. This experience helped build my self confidence as a Jewish young woman.

I am forever grateful to my father, mother, the rabbi, and the entire congregation for affording me this opportunity. It changed my life in ways I never expected.

—Marion L. Usher


This is not about me; it’s about someone else, and at 93, I no longer remember her name. What I do remember is a pretty young girl from an Orthodox family, who longed to become a rabbi — but at our age, it was not to be. So, thanks to her lovely voice, she became a cantor instead.

My mother’s generation didn’t consider women doctors “real” doctors, and my generation (at least in my younger years) didn’t consider women rabbis “real” rabbis. Thank God we have outgrown that!

—Myra Silver


December, 1950. A flyer was sent to the entire congregation of Valley Jewish Community Center and Temple in North Hollywood, California, now known as Adat Ari El.

“Can a girl do as well as a boy?” it read. “Come and hear Bat Mitzvah Sandra Jacoby, Friday night and Shabbat morning. She will read from the Torah and chant the service.”

That 13-year-old was me! When I was called to the Torah, a small group of men in the back of the congregation threw their tallitot over their heads and walked out. When our Rebbitzin, Miriam Wise ,came forward to share a reading, more left. “A shonda!” was heard from the congregation.

We have come a long way, and I am proud to be one of the pioneers.

—Sandra Jacoby Klein


I was the first woman (a teenage girl, then) to read from the Torah at Central Synagogue. The occasion was my class confirmation from Sunday school on Shavuot in 1968 or 1969.

I read half of the Ten Commandments, and a male classmate read the other half. We were the best students in Lilian Adler’s Hebrew class, so it seemed normal that we would share reading the Hebrew.

It wasn’t until after services that I realized my reading from the Torah scroll was exceptional. Men congratulated me, saying they didn’t think a girl could possibly do this.

—Caroline Harris


On August 18, 1973, I became the first female to have an aliyah at Congregation B’nai Israel in Toms River, NJ. Once the board had approved this transitional step, the question arose: “Who should be given this honor”? In addition to having taught in the Hebrew School and serving as president of Sisterhood, I was a regular attendee at Shabbat services. I relished my selection.

I was told afterward that a few men who had been against this momentous decision had walked out of the sanctuary when I was called to the Torah. They returned afterward and continued as active congregants after that.

Who was the proudest? My Orthodox Baal Kria father.

—Betsy Lewinson


I was raised in Lima, Peru. My father was against my working or studying. My mother supported me quietly. Upon graduation from high school, I worked for a year in Lima at the Bank of London and, at the same time, studied at the Catholic University School of Journalism.

Eventually, my father approved my studies abroad. I began in 1957 as correspondent for a Brazilian weekly, and moved on to a series of positions in magazines, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of the New York-headquartered Visión, at the time the newsmagazine with the widest circulation in Latin America. I then became Editorial Director of Vision Inc, where I jump-started Vision/Europe, a business magazine. I was the youngest person and the first woman in all those capacities.

—Fortuna Calvo-Roth


In 1991, at the Norway Unitarian Church in Maine, I was surely the first Jew to give a sermon, as the child of the minister, on growing up as a Jew. I doubt it’s happened since. Similarly, in 1996, I was surely the first child of a minister to serve as the president of Temple Hillel B’Nai Torah, in West Roxbury, Mass., which I did for three years.

—Ashley Pozefsky Adams


I was the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that administers Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That Act prohibits, among other things, gender discrimination in employment by covered employers, employment agencies and labor unions. I was hired on Oct. 4, 1965, three months after the EEOC began operations, and have been involved in working for women’s rights ever since.

—Sonia Pressman Fuentes


My parents joined Park Avenue Synagogue because Milton Steinberg, a great thinker in Judaism and its meaning, was the rabbi. They loved the rabbi, but found some of the “east side” social and cultural strata at the synagogue a bit much for their “west side” tastes.

Fast forward about a decade, and my mom, probably influenced by her work at the Jewish Theological Seminary and by Mordecai Kaplan, apparently approached Rabbi Steinberg about the idea of a bat mitzvah.

A prestigious and well-known doctor was also a Park Avenue member and had several daughters. The idea was put forward that I and one of his daughters, who was a friend, might be the first bat mitzvahs.

I believe that Rabbi Steinberg said yes before he died an untimely death in 1950, and the institution held to this commitment, quite radical still for its time and place. We studied with the bar mitzvah class, who barely tolerated having girls admitted, and teased us because we were not going to read from the Torah. My mother got us a rabbinic student to teach us privately, and we thrived on that additional attention.

Our bat mitzvahs happened in November, 1953 (mine was first!) and we are now memorialized in the Park Ave timeline. We had real Saturday morning celebrations, and I did a haftarah from the prophet Amos and gave a speech.

It seems clearly bashert that my haftarah was based around the commandment to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream,” since I have in fact been working for justice in and out of electoral office, issue campaigns and work in the Jewish community ever since!

—Ruth W. Messinger


I was the first female president of a synagogue in Los Angeles from 1983 to 1984. The synagogue was then the Valley Jewish Community Center and Temple and is now Adat Ari El.

—Myra Newman


My daughter was the first girl to read from the Torah at Bustleton Somerton Synagogue in Philadelphia during her bat mitzvah in June, 1980. The service was held on a Sunday Rosh Chodesh.

She read from the Shulman family Torah. Her male and female cousins had read from that Torah at their bar and bat mitzvot. Our rabbi did not want Deborah, our daughter, to be the only cousin not to read from the family Torah, so he let her do it. But her bat mitzvah did not set a precedent for other girls in her class.

—Ellen Shulman Tuckman


December 3, 2021, marked the 50th anniversary of my bat mitzvah on the Gregorian calendar.

In my conservative Jewish synagogue in 1971, women were not yet counted in a minyan, and I knew my “coming of age” would be different from that of the boys in my Hebrew school class. My bat mitzvah celebration had 5 parts:

First, we went shopping for a dress. It was white with black embroidery. I still have the dress.

Second was a shabbat dinner in the synagogue social hall, catered by my mother’s friends.

Third came the Friday night service, including chanting the haftarah. I remember asking my father if Reverend Schnitzer could tutor me instead of Cantor Sachs. Reverend Schnitzer was a kind, older gentleman. Mrs. Schnitzer always greeted me with an after-school snack. I led several of the prayers during the Friday night service but I wasn’t allowed to chant Kiddush.

Next was oneg shabbat with lots of sweets, treats, my whole Hebrew school class and friends from junior high and our neighborhood who had never been in a synagogue before.

The last and best part was the party in our basement Saturday night. My parents really did up the decorations: paper lanterns that looked like Tiffany lamps, lots of music, dancing to “Proud Mary” by Credence Clearwater.

My bat mitzvah set the stage for my lifelong comfort with public speaking. When people ask me to this day if I feel nervous before speaking to a large audience, I am instantly transported to the night of my bat mitzvah.

I still bristle when I see distinctions made between men and women. There has absolutely been significant progress over the past 50 years, and yet it is important that we recognize that the journey to gender equity for Jewish women is still a work in progress.

—Julie Stone


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