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Bat Mitzvah History Shows How Judaism Can Change

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the first-ever Bat Mitzvah. Judith Kaplan, daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (founder of the Reconstructionist Movement), was invited to read from a chumash (a printed book of the Torah) – not a Torah scroll – on a Saturday morning on 86th Street in Manhattan. 

Since then, there were many other firsts for Bat mitzvah girls: a first Friday night Bat Mitzvah, a first to wear a tallis, a first to read directly from the Torah, a first adult Bat Mitzvah, etc. Just as equality for girls began by reading from a chumash rather than a Torah, and on a Saturday morning rather than a Friday night, change in traditions is neither linear or consistent. Every synagogue espoused Bat Mitzvah in its own order and at its own pace. It took individuals in each community to advocate, often against steep pressure, for each step along the way.

Unlike today, the young girls who were pioneers of the Bat Mitzvah describe themselves as having been galvanized and motivated by the experience and none of them described her Bat Mitzvah as her graduation from Jewish life.

Unfortunately, thousands of girls and boys who will have their Bar or Bat Mitzvah this year will say “I’ve graduated” from Jewish education. Indeed, most synagogue Hebrew school systems are designed for this “graduation,” and end in seventh or eighth grade. Thus, it is not without reason that young people think that the “final exam” is their Bat or Bar Mitzvah ceremony.

Bat Mitzvah pioneers all gave serious thought to what it meant to be a girl, a woman, and a Jew at the time of their Bat Mitzvah and beyond. These issues engaged them with Judaism. Studies beyond their ceremonies gave them insight that Judaism is relevant and has an important language they could apply to the adult portion of their lives.

In becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the Jewish education system should ask the following questions of our boys and girls as they become men and women: What does it mean to be a man? A woman? A Jew? A Jewish woman? A Jewish man? What is the obligation? What is the choice? What does it mean to undergo a rite of passage into a community? What is one’s role in the community?

In addressing these questions, teens will benefit. And so will we, the Jewish community, when becoming a Bat or Bar Mitzvah is a true stepping-stone into the Jewish community rather than a graduation from the Jewish community.

Excerpted and modified from “Reflections on the Bat Mitzvah Rite Nearly a Century Later” by Sally Gottesman in The Jewish Week, April 20, 2012.

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