A Century After First Bat Mitzvah, Jewish Coming-of-Age Still Evolves

Standing at the bimah, a young white girl with long, red hair reads from the Torah. She is surrounded by her family: a father, mother and two young sisters.
Sharon Musher’s daughter Elena (center) at her bat mitzvah in 2016 | Courtesy of Sharon Musher

For some Jewish tweens, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s reality was their worst nightmare.

The evening before, Eisenstein’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, told his daughter that she would be having a bat mitzvah ceremony — chanting Torah and prayers in front of the entire congregation — giving her few hours to prepare.

The tight timing of the ordeal was only one part of the anomalous situation: Eisenstein would also become the first young Jewish woman to have a bat mitzvah, the ceremonial honor until then only afforded to young men. Previously, women only participated in a b’nai mitzvah, a group ceremony for young Jews, regardless of gender.

On March 18, 1922, a Saturday morning, Eisenstein left her seat in the front row of the women’s section of the Society of the Advancement of Judaism synagogue in New York to stand on the men’s side, some distance away from the bimah, to read from the Chumash, the book with the printed text from the Torah.

One hundred years after Eisenstein became a bat mitzvah in front of her community, her accomplishment is being recognized, both through events honoring the milestone and by the continuous paradigm shift the Jewish institution of b’nai mitzvah is undergoing in some communities.

Despite the unprecedented nature of Eisenstein’s Jewish coming of age, the event was not particularly controversial in the community.

Dressed in a tallit and with a yad on an open Torah, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, a white woman with curly, white hair smiles at the camera.
Judith Kaplan Eisenstein at her second bat mitzvah ceremony in 1992 | Courtesy of Sharon Musher

Kaplan was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, which was defined by its views of Judaism as an ever-evolving culture and religion. He had an interest in the suffrage movement of the time and in first-wave feminism, which advocated for the increased presence of women in public roles.

Kaplan saw Eisenstein, his eldest daughter, as
his disciple and mentee, according to Stockton University history professor and great-niece of Eisenstein,
Sharon Musher.

“He had four daughters and he wanted them to participate in this rite of passage,” Musher said.

In line with his Reconstructionist sensibilities, Kaplan took the consensus of the SAJ community, who agreed that Eisenstein could have a bat mitzvah in front of the congregation. Only Eisenstein’s grandmothers had qualms with the ceremony, Musher said.

Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah had marked differences to the likes of those seen today in Reform, Reconstructionist and some Conservative spaces: She didn’t read from the Torah scroll or wear a tallit or kippah. Eisenstein did not have an aliyah again until five months before the bat mitzvah of her daughter Miriam many years later, and Eisenstein had a second bat mitzvah in 1992, four years before her death.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah, SAJ – Judaism That Stands for All, will host a Rise Up/Bat Mitzvah At 100: National Shabbat on March 17 over Zoom and in-person. With Ironbound Films, they launched an Instagram campaign @judithkaplan1922 to illustrate what young Judith Kaplan’s life at 12 would have been like had she had Instagram as a child.

Dylan Tanzer, the West Orange, New Jersey-based actor who will play the bat mitzvah girl in the Instagram project, believes Eisenstein was an “inspiration to all Jewish girls now.”

Only seven months away from her own bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue, Dylan, 12, will read as much of her Torah portion as she can.  Learning more about Eisenstein’s story, Dylan was shocked that the first bat mitzvah, something of an inevitability in her Jewish upbringing, was near-unheard of a century ago.

“I cannot express that it was 100 years ago,” she said. “I just thought it was normal; I didn’t even think about it.”

Dylan Tanzer is a 12-year-old white girl wearing a 1920s-style dress. She has long, brown hair brushed to one side of her shoulder and is smiling at the camera.
Dylan Tanzer as Judith Kaplan | Courtesy of Ironbound Films

But Eisenstein didn’t just open the door for young girls. For Jewish women not allowed to celebrate their bat mitzvah when they turned 12, Eisenstein’s legacy gave them a chance to fulfill the mitzvah later in life.

This year, Congregation Beth Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in Marlton, New Jersey, held an adult b’nai mitzvah class to coincide with the 100-year anniversary.

“It’s by design that we’re doing it this year,” Rabbi Nathan Weiner said. 

Beth Tikvah was the first Conservative congregation to allow for bat mitzvahs that were identical to bar mitzvahs, according to Weiner.

The egalitarian nature of the synagogue is what drew congregant Bonni Rubin-Sugarman to the synagogue more than 30 years ago. 

Now 70, Rubin-Sugarman, a student in Beth Tikvah’s adult b’nai mitzvah class, will have the bat mitzvah ceremony she longed to have but didn’t as a tween. 

Growing up with a father who was the president of a Conservative synagogue, Rubin-Sugarman was socialized with strict gender roles. She was somewhat resentful that her brothers who played Little League baseball and attended Hebrew school, envious of the one Jewish girl she knew who had a bat mitzvah.

“I thought it was wonderful — and not for the party — for what she was accomplishing,” she said. “I was just in awe of what she accomplished.”

After her confirmation in the 10th grade, Rubin-Sugarman became involved in United Synagogue Youth, committing to involvement in Jewish life as an adult.

“I said to myself at 16 when I went on USY On Wheels, ‘I’m going to do this someday; someday, I’m going to be able to have a bat mitzvah,’ and that kind of had a huge effect on me,” she said.

Rubin-Sugarman approached Weiner last year, requesting a bat mitzvah ceremony that would take place in her 70th year of life. Her son-in-law, who recently converted, and seven other congregants joined her.

Always religious, Rubin-Sugarman said her relationship with Judaism has changed as her June 11 bat mitzvah date approaches.

“I consider myself a pretty spiritual person,” she said. “And I couldn’t imagine [the adult b’nai mitzvah class] would enhance it, but I think it has.”

While Rubin-Sugarman felt like having a bat mitzvah later in life was a way to fulfill a dream from her past, SAJ Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is looking to make fundamental changes to the language and attitude around Jewish coming-of-age that align with the spirit of Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah, which brought an underrepresented gender into a new fold of synagogue life.

About four or five years ago, Grabelle Herrmann — who also was the founding rabbi of West Philadelphia’s Kol Tzedek congregation — changed all language referring to coming-of-age to “b’mitzvah,” a gender-neutral term that is becoming more widely used in many Reform and Reconstructionist spaces. SAJ’s gender-neutral language is also used when calling up individuals for an aliyah, regardless of the individual’s gender.

In the past year, five of the congregation’s 260 families have had b’mitzvah for a transgender, gender non-conforming or non-binary child.

“It’s awesome to feel like we’re ready to be inclusive without it being a big deal at all,” Grabelle Herrmann said.

In addition to the language being affirming, it’s also practical in a space where kids and tweens are thinking openly about their gender, she said. Grabelle Herrmann had a child announce a change in pronouns two weeks before their b’mitzvah. The family asked what needed to change in the ceremony. Nothing did, Grabelle Herrmann said.

In a changing political and social landscape, more than just a language update is necessary to engage Jewish youth, Grabelle Herrmann argued.

Beyond teaching prayers and parshot to young congregants, she’s also tasked with engaging tweens who aren’t interested in becoming b’mitzvah or engaging further with the Jewish community.

“I’ve had many conversations with kids who are like, ‘I’m not into this; I’m not feeling this,’ Grabelle Herrmann said. “And I’m able to talk about: What are the reasons people do this? Why is this important to your parents? What can you get out of it? Those conversations keep the kids engaged, even if they don’t love their b’mitzvah. They know that they can trust to talk to a Jewish adult and spiritual figure.”

The task is in line with what Musher believes is the true purpose of a b’mitzvah.

In a black-and-white photo, four young white girls in white dresses sit outside on the grass.
The four daughters of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan as young girls | Courtesy of Sharon Musher

When she reflects on the legacy of her great aunt, Musher thinks beyond just the inaugural bat mitzvah. Eisenstein became a prominent and prolific Jewish composer, musicologist and educator. Though her bat mitzvah was the genesis of her engagement with the larger Jewish community, the impact of her scholarship and commitment to Jewish life was profound after her coming-of-age.

“It’s really important that [b’nai mitzvahs] mark, not the end of young people’s Jewish education,” Musher said, “but the beginning of an adult commitment to Jewish peoplehood.” 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here