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The Bat Mitzvah — 100 years after the first one

By Jackie Hajdenberg

NEW HAVEN — Barb Berkowitz and 11 other women in the adult Bat Mitzvah class at Temple Emanuel in New Haven, Conn., had been studying with Rabbi Jerry Brieger for months. Some had only just learned how to read Hebrew, while others had watched their sons prepare for their Bar Mitzvahs. Each woman chanted a few verses of the Torah portion, offering insights to their community.

Judith Kaplan Eisenstein at the 70th anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah. (Jewish Women’s Archive)

“And I fell in love,” Berkowitz said.

That was in 1989. Today, Berkowitz is the “Torah captain” at Temple Emanuel, where she is in charge of appointing Torah readers.

Last week, the rabbi instructed her to select only women to chant, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first Bat Mitzvah in the US.

“I said, ‘Well, that’s really easy, because we don’t have hardly any men,’” she joked.

Temple Emanuel is one of more than 100 synagogues honoring the milestone in expanding roles for women in synagogue: the 1922 Bat Mitzvah of Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, the first-ever for an American girl.
The anniversary was celebrated last week as part of a campaign organized by the Manhattan synagogue Kaplan’s father founded, the Jewish Women’s Archive and a host of Jewish organizations across the country.

The synagogue — now known as SAJ-Judaism That Stands for All — kicked off “Rise Up Shabbat” with a livestreamed program on March 17.

Shabbat morning services featured music written by women and a talk by Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who wrote a children’s book about Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s Bat Mitzvah.

At Temple Emanuel, everyone who became a Bat Mitzvah as an adult was called to the Torah together.
There, Rabbi Michael Farbman has also been reaching out to past generations of adult Bnot Mitzvah classes to collect their stories and share them in the synagogue’s newsletter.

“They started writing back with these incredible memories and the truly profound impact of a journey of learning together, of being together, of reclaiming something that they did not have the privilege of experiencing in their life,” he said.

“I found that profoundly beautiful. And what a great way to both celebrate Judith, and also every milestone.”

In the 1920s, the atmosphere around the inclusion of women in all forms of American life was changing. Eisensteins’ Bat Mitzvah took place just two years after the certification of the 19th amendment finally granted women the right to vote. She was the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and SAJ.

Rabbi Carole Balin, a professor emerita of history at Hebrew Union College, said that Mordecai Kaplan did not intend for his daughter’s ceremony to be identical to the male rite of passage, the Bar Mitzvah.

“He thought of it as a complement to Bar Mitzvah,” Balin said. “He saw it as a corrective to girls’ exclusion, basically, but he did not see it as its equal.”

Judith Kaplan’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony “didn’t look like what we think of as Bat Mitzvah today,” Balin said.
In many non-Orthodox synagogues, Bat Mitzvah girls often lead the congregation in the service; recite an aliyah (the blessings that precede and follow the reading from the Torah); read directly from the Torah, and carry the scrolls in a procession around the sanctuary.

“She said the blessing for the aliyah, but not over a Torah, and then read from her Chumash, and that was the end of it,” Balin said, using the Hebrew word for a book containing the Five Books of Moses.

Eisenstein was interviewed by Larry Hankin of the Intermountain Jewish News in May, 1978, when the 18th annual convention of the national Reconstructionist movement was held in Denver.

“There was a great deal of fuss by those who didn’t approve of what I was doing, even within my own family,” Eisenstein told the IJN.

“After they saw that nothing terrible happened, there was no protest from then on.”

She also said she derived a great deal of satisfaction from seeing so many young ladies have Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, but she admitted to being chagrined that performance, parties and gifts seemed to be overtaking the true essence of Bat and Bar Mitzvahs.

“The kids are nervous wrecks because of the importance placed on the perfection of performance.

“My father decided what I would do for my Bat Mtzvah the night before so I didn’t have time to get nervous!”

In the decades after Eisenstein’s Bat Mitzvah, and as the ceremonies began appearing all over the country, Balin said women began to “demand greater access to ritual roles, and not just access to them but regular participation in those roles.

“Then they demand to be on synagogue boards and become synagogue presidents and all the rest.”

There is evidence that some recognition of the Bat Mitzvah had already emerged by the late 1800s and early 1900s in traditional Jewish communities in parts of Europe and the Ottoman Empire, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive.

At the turn of the century, Rabbi Yosef Hayim of Baghdad “recommended that girls mark their 12th birthdays in liturgical fashion, with options ranging from wearing festive clothing to reciting shehecheyanu.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Bat Mitzvah ceremonies became mainstream in American synagogues — a history that may be surprising to girls and younger women who have seen Bat Mitzvahs reflected in pop culture for as long as they can remember.

“We almost can’t imagine a world without Bat Mitzvah,” said Rabbi Karen Perolman of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, NJ.

“And yet I think there’s a risk of taking it for granted if we don’t really lift it up and say, ‘This is something of significance, worthy of celebration, it’s worthy of acknowledgement.’ We should know the story of Judith Kaplan.”

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