On this date, March 18th, in 1922, Judith Kaplan, age 12, became the first American to celebrate a bat mitzvah. 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.
Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah marked a turning point for Judaism in America. Although Judith Kaplan herself was not allowed to read from the Torah scroll, as modern bat mitzvah celebrants do, instead, she read a passage in Hebrew and English from a printed Chumash (first five books of the Bible) after the regular Torah service. Still, Rabbi Kaplan's innovation gained followers, and all Reconstructionist and about a third of Conservative congregations held bat mitzvah ceremonies by 1948. By the 1960s, bat mitzvah was a regular feature of congregational life; today it is a mainstay in synagogues from Reform to Modern Orthodox.
After her ground-breaking bat mitzvah, Kaplan Eisenstein (Judith married Ira Eisenstein, who became Mordecai 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 broadcast a thirteen-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.
You can read many wonderful articles on the Bat Mitzvah ceremony, including Judith Kaplan Eisenstein's reminiscences, "A Recollection of the First U.S. Bat Mitzvah," at RitualWell.org.
This Day...in Jewish History was the source for this article.