Celebrating a trailblazer whose bat mitzvah in 1922 opened doors for Jewish women
Judith Kaplan was a 12-year-old Jewish girl about to make history — only she didn’t know it.
It was 1922, and her father, who headed a synagogue in Manhattan, decided she would become a bat mitzvah to mark her passage into religious adulthood in the Jewish faith.
Boys had performed the solemn ceremony — for them, called a bar mitzvah — since the 14th century. But not girls. They and women in general were not given the same opportunities as men in Judaism.
On Friday, synagogues on Long Island and throughout the United States will mark the 100th anniversary of Kaplan becoming the first girl in the country to become a bat mitzvah.
Historians say it unleashed a revolution in the Jewish faith that eventually led to women becoming rabbis for the first time, in 1972.
"No one in the synagogues had seen girls or women up front and center. They were marginalized in Jewish communal life," said Carole Balin, a professor emeriti of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan.
After Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, thousands of girls eventually followed her. Their example inspired older Jewish women decades later to mark their own bat mitzvahs — something they were denied as girls — and catapulted females to equal standing in synagogues, she said.
"Bat mitzvah girls sparked a gender revolution in Jewish life," Balin said. "It transformed Jewish life."
Ceremony for girls now common
Today, girls become bat mitzvahs as commonly as boys become bar mitzvahs, and just as many newly minted rabbis are women as men.
Kaplan spent six years at the Reconstructionist Synagogue of the North Shore in Manhasset with her husband, Ira Eisenstein, who served as rabbi there. On Friday, that synagogue will be among scores around the country remembering — and honoring — Kaplan.
Rabbi Lee Friedlander, who was a student and friend of the Eisensteins, came to the synagogue in 1981 and took it over, though Judith and her husband continued to worship there.
Friedlander called Kaplan, who died in 1996, a "larger than life kind of person" who "felt very, very proud that she could be that kind of trailblazer."
On Friday night, congregants who knew Kaplan will give testimonials, while others will talk about the importance of her life and legacy.
Another synagogue on Long Island, Kehillath Shalom in Huntington, also will mark the anniversary. Rabbi Lina Zerbarini said many women members there celebrated their bat mitzvah when they were in their 50s, 60s or 70s — thanks to Kaplan.
Women able to become rabbis
And some Jewish women, like Zerbarini, were able to become rabbis, she said.
"I am grateful every day to have the opportunity to do the work that I do, which is only made possible by the women who came before me and who were pioneers, people like Judith Kaplan," she said.
Balin, who also heads the board of the Boston-based Jewish Women’s Archive and is helping to organize the 100th anniversary events, says her group has heard from about 150 congregations in the United States that will celebrate it.
On March 18, 1922, Kaplan became a bat mitzvah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism synagogue on the Upper West Side. The synagogue was overseen by her father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who later went on to found a fourth branch of Judaism called Reconstructionism.
Kaplan did not tell his oldest daughter about his plan until the night before the event, according to Balin and Friedlander. The girl initially was not excited about it.
"She just wanted to be a normal kid like every other kid," Friedlander said. But "here her father was pushing her into the forefront of history."
Her father "anticipated the feminist movement I would say by five decades," Friedlander said. "He was a real revolutionary. He genuinely believed women should have an equal place in Jewish ritual life."
Understood her place in history
Judith soon understood what her father was doing, Friedlander said. "She came to not only embrace but to advance this idea. It didn’t take her long to understand her place in history."
Her bat mitzvah did not spark a revolution overnight, though.
"Despite the fact that Judith Kaplan did stand up and read from a Bible in public for what may have been the first time certainly in American history, it took a long time for women to be fully egalitarian in Judaism," Zerbarini said. "It didn’t all of a sudden happen in 1922."
It took another half-century for women to become rabbis, she noted.
While her role in history was cemented when she was 12, as an adult Kaplan went on to became accomplished in her own right. She earned bachelor's and master’s degrees from Columbia University, and a doctorate at Hebrew Union College. An author, teacher and noted musicologist, she also studied of the Institute of Musical Art, now The Juilliard School.
When Kaplan turned 82, which was 12 years past the biblical life span of 70, she had a second bat mitzvah ceremony to mark the moment. At the event, she was honored by feminist and Jewish leaders including Betty Friedan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Ruth W. Messinger, Elizabeth Holtzman, Rabbi Joy Levitt, Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Blu Greenberg.
Today, at the synagogue in Manhasset where she once worshipped, one of the rabbis is a woman, Jodie Siff.
"I consider her to be a living tribute to what Judy represented in the Jewish world," Friedlander said.