On Shabbat morning March 18, 1922, 12 year old Judith Kaplan rose and went to the front of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ) in New York City. SAJ had been founded some months before by students and admirers of Judith Kaplan’s father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Kaplan was a Conservative rabbi and a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Although he is known as the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, at the time Kaplan did not intend Reconstructionism to be a separate denomination but rather a school of thought. At any rate, one of the principles which Kaplan believed in was full ritual equality between males and females, and his eldest daughter, Judith, thus was the first girl in Jewish history to have a formal Bat Mitzvah ceremony. At the time she did not wear a tallit or read from the Torah scroll -- she read part of the weekly parasha but from a printed Chumash. By the 1930s the Bat Mitzvah ceremony had spread to about a third of Conservative synagogues and became normative by the 1950s or 1960s, although in many synagogues it was held on Friday night rather than Shabbat morning. Today, of course, Bat Mitzvah is ubiquitous in Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist congregations and many Orthodox congregations observe it as well in various ways.
Judith Kaplan later married Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who was her father’s assistant and later successor at the SAJ. Rabbi Eisenstein was the head of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation but also the president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Judith Eisenstein eventually earned a Ph.D. in musicology and taught at various universities and cantorial schools. When Rabbi and Dr. Eisenstein retired, they moved to Montgomery County where their daughter lived. She died at Holy Cross Hospital in 1996 and her husband died at Suburban Hospital in 2001, and his funeral was held at Adat Shalom in Bethesda.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Bat Mitzvah, the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly are asking people to share their Bat Mitzvah memories. If you want to share your memories, please click here for the form.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian