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Judith Kaplan celebrates first American Bat Mitzvah ceremony

March 18, 1922
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"No thunder sounded. No lightening struck," recalled Judith Kaplan Eisenstein of her history-making 1922 Bat Mitzvah ceremony, the first in America. She is pictured here at her second Bat Mitzvah ceremony, where she was honored by a number of prominent Jewish women, including Betty Friedan and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

Institution: The Ira and Judith Kaplan Eisenstein Reconstructionist Archives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College


Judith Kaplan, at age 12, became the first American to celebrate a Bat Mitzvah on March 18, 1922. Judith was the oldest daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Believing that girls should have the same religious opportunities as their brothers, Rabbi Kaplan arranged for his daughter to read Torah on a Shabbat morning at his synagogue, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

The Kaplan Bat Mitzvah marked a turning point for Conservative Judaism in America. Always torn between tradition and modernity, the movement struggled for many decades with women's roles in the synagogue. Judith Kaplan herself did not read from the Torah scroll, as modern Bat Mitzvah celebrants do; instead, she read a passage in Hebrew and English from a printed Chumash (the first five books of the Bible) after the regular Torah service. Still, Rabbi Kaplan's innovation gained followers. By 1948, about a third of Conservative congregations had conducted Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. By the 1960s, Bat Mitzvah was a regular feature of Conservative congregational life; today it is a mainstay in synagogues from Reform to Modern Orthodox.

After her ground-breaking Bat Mitzvah, Kaplan Eisenstein (she married Ira Eisenstein who became Kaplan's successor in leading the Reconstructionist movement) went on to a successful career in Jewish music. After studying at the Institute of Musical Art (now the Julliard School) in New York, she attended the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) Teachers Institute and Columbia University's Teachers College, where she earned an M.A. in music education in 1932. She later earned a Ph.D. in the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

Kaplan Eisenstein taught music pedagogy and the history of Jewish music at JTS, HUC-JIR, and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for many years. She also created the first Jewish songbook for children, Gateway to Jewish Song (1937). Her other published works include Festival Songs (1943) and Heritage of Music: The Music of the Jewish People (1972). In 1987, she created and broadcasted a 13-hour radio series on the history of Jewish music. In 1992, at age 82, Kaplan Eisenstein celebrated a second Bat Mitzvah, surrounded by leaders of the modern Jewish feminist movement. This time, she read from a Torah scroll. Kaplan Eisenstein died on February 14, 1996.

To learn more about Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

See also: JWA's Go & Learn lesson plan "Taking Risks, Making Change: Bat Mitzvah and Other Evolving Traditions"; "Bat Mitzvah Revolutions and Evolutions", Jewesses with Attitude; Highlighted Judiths; Conservative Judaism in the United States.

Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 126-128, 370-371; New York Times, March 19, 1992, February 15, 1996.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Judith Kaplan celebrates first American Bat Mitzvah ceremony." (Viewed on April 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/mar/18/1922/judith-kaplan>.