American synagogues mark 100th anniversary of the US's first bat mitzvah

The first bat mitzvah in the US was that of Judith Kaplan in 1922.

 Judith Kaplan's bat mitzvah in 1922 set the precedent for millions of American Jewish women, including the ladies of Temple Emanuel in 1989. (photo credit: Courtesy of Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven)
Judith Kaplan's bat mitzvah in 1922 set the precedent for millions of American Jewish women, including the ladies of Temple Emanuel in 1989.
(photo credit: Courtesy of Temple Emanuel of Greater New Haven)

Barb Berkowitz became a bat mitzvah at 42 years old. 

Berkowitz and 11 other women in the adult bat mitzvah class at Temple Emanuel in New Haven, Connecticut, 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.

“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. This week, the rabbi instructed her to select only women to chant, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah in the United States.

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

 Judith Kaplan at the 70th anniversary of her bat mitzvah. (credit: Courtesy of Jewish Women's Archive) Judith Kaplan at the 70th anniversary of her bat mitzvah. (credit: Courtesy of Jewish Women's Archive)

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, the first-ever for an American girl. The anniversary is being celebrated this weekend 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 — will kick off “Rise Up Shabbat” with a live-streamed program Thursday night. Shabbat morning services will feature music written by women and a talk by Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who wrote a children’s book about Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah.

In New Jersey, the 12-year-old who plays Judith Kaplan in an Instagram account launched to mark the milestone will speak during Shabbat services. In Evanston, Illinois, congregants will get a chance to learn more about Jewish coming-of-age rituals and how they are evolving.

And at Temple Emanuel, everyone who became a bat mitzvah as an adult will be called to the Torah together. There, Rabbi Michael Farbman has also been reaching out to past generations of adult bat 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, and say, ‘Wow, look how far we’ve come.’”

In the 1920s, the atmosphere around the inclusion of women in all forms of American life was changing. Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah took place just two years after the certification of the 19th amendment finally granted women the right to vote. And as the daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and SAJ, she was also in the right place at the right time. 

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 from Jewish education over millennia, 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.

In the decades after Kaplan’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. And 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 twelfth birthdays in liturgical fashion, with options ranging from wearing festive clothing to reciting shehecheyanu.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s that bat mitzvah ceremonies were 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, New Jersey. “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.”

Perolman said her congregation will wait until next weekend to mark the occasion because Dylan Tanzer, the congregant who plays Judith Kaplan in the educational instagram campaign, will be at SAJ this week. In Short Hills, Tanzer, who plans to celebrate her bat mitzvah there next year, will speak to her community, and teens who became bat mitzvah in the synagogue will perform music.

Women’s access to the bimah, the stage in the sanctuary where the Torah is read, is not the only thing being recognized during Rise Up Shabbat, rabbis who are taking part in the program say. Communities are also recognizing nontraditional ways of reaching this Jewish milestone. From Jews by choice to Jews who grew up in the former Soviet Union, where religious practice was suppressed, to people who found out they were Jewish later in life, there are many reasons why someone may not have become bar or bat mitzvah until their adulthood.

Farbman, who is originally from Belarus, which was part of the Soviet Union, celebrated his bar mitzvah at 27 — the day before he was ordained as a rabbi. 

For others, the recognition of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah and the inclusion of women is also a moment to think about the role of gender in Jewish life. The Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston offers a gender-neutral “brit mitzvah” — one of a growing number of terms used for non-gendered ceremonies. The inclusive ceremonies have gained so much traction that they were even the subject of the season finale of HBO’s “And Just Like That,” the “Sex and the City” reboot.

 

Rabbi Rachel Weiss, the first woman rabbi at her congregation, explained that for many teenagers, the ceremony is about being able to integrate gender identity with Jewish identity, but for others, it has nothing to do with gender at all. 

“The way we talk about it is if they were entered into the covenant of Judaism as a baby, they had no agency,” Weiss said. “It was something that was expected by their families. And this really is a covenant of choice.”

On the term “brit mitzvah,” which translates as “covenant of the commandments,” Weiss said, “What’s more important than which language we ultimately choose is the process and the conversation that we have alongside it.”

She added, “And this provides an opportunity for so many of our young people to actually talk about their gender identity, in conversation with their Jewish identity.”

To honor Judith Kaplan’s legacy, Weiss’ synagogue will host a “learning Shabbat” where congregants will get to ask every question they have about the Torah service. Like other synagogues, this will be hybrid service where members can watch on Zoom. For one moment during the aliyah, viewers at home will press unmute for a moment of cacophonous joy.

In Richmond, Virginia, Rabbi Michael Knopf of Temple Beth-El said his congregation’s service on Saturday will be led by women ages 14 to 84, including the synagogue’s cantor, Dara Rosenblatt. In preparation for Rise Up Shabbat, he did some research on his own synagogue and found out that Beth-El’s first bat mitzvah was in 1950. 

“Our most recent bat mitzvah is going to be reading Torah and people who had their b’not mitzvah when they were in their 50s and 60s and 70s are coming and leading services and reading Torah,” he said.

Knopf called the anniversary of the bat mitzvah a “great opportunity for people to come back to the synagogue for something really positive.” 

Back at SAJ, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is having a similar experience. The synagogue just last week had its first in-person kiddush luncheon since the pandemic began. And, of course, as the home of the first bat mitzvah, this week is especially exciting and festive. 

“The joy,” she said, “is coming back.”