CLEVELAND'S FIRST BAT MITZVAH CEREMONIES  
Introduction: America's First Bat Mitzvah

America's first Bat Mitzvah was held Saturday morning March 18, 1922 at the meeting house of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism at 41 West 86th Street in New York.  Later that year the SAJ moved to 15 West 86th Street, where it remains today. Reconstructionist Jews consider it their first synagogue, as it was founded and led by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, on whose ideology the movement is based, though it is also affiliated with the Conservative movement.

The Hebrew calendar date was Adar 16. The Torah portion was Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35). The young woman was Judith Kaplan, the oldest of Kaplan's four daughters. She was then 12 years and six months old.

Kaplan, who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary until his retirement in 1963, wrote 27 bound volumes of diaries. In 2010 the JTS library digitized these diaries. They are now online.

We made use of this virtual treasure to show below the entry Mordecai Kaplan wrote in his diary about a week after the ceremony.

Rabbi Kaplan never made a diary entry with the details of the day. (Source: Kaplan's biographer Professor Mel Scult in his book "Communings of the Spirit" Volume 1, page 159). Scult's book includes some of Judith Kaplan Eisenstein's recollections of her Bat Mitzvah.

Why did Mordecai Kaplan do this? It was a time when women's rights were being recognized. In 1917 the State of New York granted women the right to vote, followed in 1920 by the US 19th amendment.

Only months earlier he had founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. Having an all new membership may have given him the confidence to innovate.

Perhaps most important, he was the father of four girls. His oldest daughter, brilliant and accomplished, was old enough and knew Hebrew well.

Mel Scult tells us the event was planned, announced in the SAJ bulletin, with a congregational lunch after the service. Judith's essay (below) reveals that what she would do was not decided until the night before.

 

Dr. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein
celebrating the 70th anniversary
 of her Bat Mitzvah.

 

Photo courtesy of the Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives


On Saturday March 21, 1992 70 women active in Jewish life gathered at the Terrace on the Park in Flushing Meadow, Queens to pay tribute to Dr. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein and to celebrate the 70th anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah, the nation's first.

They included Betty Friedan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Ruth Messinger, Elizabeth Holtzman, Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Blu Greenberg. The event was organized by the Greater New York Region of the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (later known as the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation).

In this photo Dr. Eisenstein is wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and pointing with a yad at an open Torah scroll.
It was not an attempt to re-enact the ceremony of 70 years before, for then, as she explains in a memoir probably written in the 1960s, her Bat Mitzvah of 1922 was very different. She was not on the bimah, did not face the men in the congregation and wore no tallit. The Torah scroll had been returned to its cover and she read from a chumash (the Five Books of Moses).

To see how far this ceremony has evolved from hers in 1922, in today's Reform and Conservative congregations becoming the same as the Bar Mitzvah ceremony for boys, read her own account below.

 

Judith Kaplan Eisenstein
The story of my Bat Mitzvah

Pages 31-33 of "Eyewitnesses to American Jewish History", Part IV, The American Jew 1915 - 1969" edited by Azriel Eisenberg published 1982 by UAHC include an otherwise unpublished (and unfortunately undated) description of the event by Judith Kaplan Eisenstein.

One error: "May" 1922" should have been "March".

My Bat Mitzvah by Judith Kaplan Eisenstein  (pdf)

An abridged version of the essay can be found on the Reconstructionist Ritualwell website. Link to the article.
 

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