How the bat mitzvah broke barriers for Jewish women

The bat mitzvah is a coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish girls.

March 18, 2022, 7:29 AM

In the first official ceremony of its kind, on March 18, 1922, a young girl named Judy Kaplan took on the obligations and responsibilities of Jewish adulthood in a ceremony that had long been held for boys exclusively.

Friday marks the 100-year anniversary since the first bat mitzvah ceremony known was celebrated. Little did Kaplan know she would break a glass ceiling for women of the Jewish faith for years to come.

"It was a tremendous moment in Judaism where we started to say, 'girls' coming-of-age matters too and young women can and should be reading from the Torah," said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg from the National Council of Jewish Women.

"We need to take [women] seriously. They're not side players in the 'male' story. And certainly 100 years ago, that was downright radical," Ruttenberg added.

In mainstream, non-Orthodox communities, a young woman will intensively read and study the Torah for months, learning how to chant and recite specific verses in the text. She'll "engage with ancient texts, and see how it intersects" with "modern life," according to Rabbi Diana Fersko of The Village Temple.

PHOTO: Rabbi Diana Fersko of The Village Temple says that the Bat Mitzvah is an empowering celebration for young women.
Rabbi Diana Fersko of The Village Temple says that the Bat Mitzvah is an empowering celebration for young women.
Susan Rosenberg Jones

At bat mitzvah celebrations, the honoree may lead the congregation in the readings of the Torah and preach to the congregation about what she has learned and how she interprets the holy passages.

However, this may look different among the different branches and sects of the religion, including Reform Judaism, Orthodox Judaism and others.

This anniversary, perfectly aligned with women's history month, highlights the importance of allowing women to have "a beautiful moment of confidence-building -- of Jewish learning and of relationship, with people and with the Jewish tradition," Fersko said.

It's an important moment in a Jewish girl's life, said the rabbis who spoke with ABC News. They say the close examination of the Torah and its commandments helps young girls ask themselves: Who are they and what do they believe in?

Fersko added, "It's a chance to become more familiar with your own voice."

PHOTO: The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is a rabbi, is the birth place of the Bat Mitzvah.
The Society for the Advancement of Judaism, where Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann is a rabbi, is the birth place of the Bat Mitzvah.
Chrystie Sherman

Rabbis say that the first bat mitzvah served as the introduction point for many women in the Jewish faith to continue to grow their engagement in faith organizations across the country.

It also led the way for the inclusion of gender nonbinary congregants -- with the "B’nai Mitzvah" or "B-Mitzvah."

The Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City is the birthplace of the bat mitzvah.

When SAJ Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Herrmann remembers her own bat mitzvah, she remembers that she wasn't allowed to read from the Torah because she was a girl.

PHOTO: Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, shown in this 1992 file photo, was the first Jewish girl to have a Bat Mitzvah.
Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, shown in this 1992 file photo, was the first Jewish girl to have a Bat Mitzvah.
Ed Bailey/AP, FILE

She didn't do the core readings and rituals -- and that stuck with her, she said.

"This kind of Judaism doesn't fit for me, this Judaism where girls and boys are not equal -- that doesn't work for me," she said.

Herrmann added, "It was a turning point for me, where I was able to see the kind of Judaism that I in some ways didn't want to be a part of, and then start to envision the kind of Judaism I did want to be part of."

The rabbis that spoke with ABC News say it's important to have empowered women leaders in the Jewish faith in order to support young female congregants through the challenges they may face outside of the synagogue.

The bat mitzvah, rabbis say, is a big part of that.

"It's the first step to creating Jewish religious leaders that we need for the 21st century," Ruttenberg said.

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