By Sasha Rogelberg
For some Jewish tweens, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s reality was their worst nightmare.
The evening before, Eisenstein’s father, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, told his daughter that she would be having a bat mitzvah ceremony — chanting Torah and prayers in front of the entire congregation — giving her few hours to prepare.
The tight timing of the ordeal was only one part of the anomalous situation: Eisenstein would also become the first young Jewish woman to have a bat mitzvah, the ceremonial honor until then only afforded to young men. Previously, women only participated in a group ceremony for young Jews, regardless of gender.
On March 18, 1922, a Saturday morning, Eisenstein left her seat in the front row of the women’s section of the Society of the Advancement of Judaism synagogue in New York to stand on the men’s side, some distance away from the bimah, to read from the Chumash, the book with the printed text from the Torah.
One hundred years after Eisenstein became a bat mitzvah in front of her community, her accomplishment is being recognized, both through events honoring the milestone and by the continuous paradigm shift the Jewish institution of b’nai mitzvah is undergoing in some communities.
Despite the unprecedented nature of Eisenstein’s Jewish coming of age, the event was not particularly controversial in the community.
Kaplan was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, which was defined by its views of Judaism as an ever-evolving culture and religion. He had an interest in the suffrage movement of the time and in first-wave feminism, which advocated for the increased presence of women in public roles.
Kaplan saw Eisenstein, his eldest daughter, as his disciple and mentee, according to Stockton University history professor and great-niece of Eisenstein, Sharon Musher.
“He had four daughters and he wanted them to participate in this rite of passage,” Musher said.
In line with his Reconstructionist sensibilities, Kaplan took the consensus of the SAJ community, who agreed that Eisenstein could have a bat mitzvah in front of the congregation. Only Eisenstein’s grandmothers had qualms with the ceremony, Musher said.
Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah had marked differences to the likes of those seen today in Reform, Reconstructionist and some Conservative spaces: She didn’t read from the Torah scroll or wear a tallit or kippah. Eisenstein wasn’t permitted to be on the bimah until the bat mitzvah of her daughter Miriam many years later. Eisenstein had a second bat mitzvah in 1992, four years before her death.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Eisenstein’s bat mitzvah, SAJ – Judaism That Stands for All, will host a Rise Up/Bat Mitzvah At 100: National Shabbat on March 17 over Zoom and in-person. With Ironbound Films, they launched an Instagram campaign @judithkaplan1922 to illustrate what young Judith Kaplan’s life at 12 would have been like had she had Instagram as a child.
Dylan Tanzer, the West Orange, N.J.-based actor who will play the bat mitzvah girl in the Instagram project, believes Eisenstein was an “inspiration to all Jewish girls now.”
Only seven months away from her own bat mitzvah at a Reform synagogue, Dylan, 12, will read as much of her Torah portion as she can. Learning more about Eisenstein’s story, Dylan was shocked that the first bat mitzvah, something of an inevitability in her Jewish upbringing, was near-unheard of a century ago.
“I cannot express that it was 100 years ago,” she said. “I just thought it was normal; I didn’t even think about it.”
But Eisenstein didn’t just open the door for young girls. For Jewish women not allowed to celebrate their bat mitzvah when they turned 12, Eisenstein’s legacy gave them a chance to fulfill the mitzvah later in life.
When she reflects on the legacy of her great aunt, Musher thinks beyond just the inaugural bat mitzvah. Eisenstein became a prominent and prolific Jewish composer, musicologist and educator. Though her bat mitzvah was the genesis of her engagement with the larger Jewish community, the impact of her scholarship and commitment to Jewish life was profound after her coming-of-age.
“It’s really important that [b’nai mitzvah] mark, not the end of young people’s Jewish education,” Musher said, “but the beginning of an adult commitment to Jewish peoplehood.”