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Female representation in Jewish community

Words by Smiley Team

100 years ago: March 18, 1922, marked a change in the lives of Jewish women and how they interacted with their faith in America. It was on this day that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan bat mitzvahed his daughter, Judith Kaplan, at New York City's Society for the Advancement of Judaism – a temple that's still around today. 

That bat mitzvah was the first in America and something uncommon for young girls around the world. The Ottoman and Hungarian Empires like early rituals for girls. And confirmation, an alternative coming-of-age ceremony, was adopted by Jews in 19th century Prussia and later used by Reform temples for both boys and girls. But wholly established laws for girls’ coming-of-age ceremonies didn’t exist when the first bar mitzvah for boys happened all the way in the 13th century

Rabbi Kaplan didn’t have a complicated reason for establishing the bar mitzvah in America. 

“He always joked that he initiated the rite for four reasons — Judith being the first, and his younger daughters being the second, third and fourth,” Rabbi Carole Balin, a professor emerita of Jewish history at Hebrew Union College told NPR.

The moment wasn’t exuberant or eventful.

“No thunder sounded. No lightning struck,” Judith Kaplan recounted about her bat mitzvah.

100 years of representation of women

Kaplan didn’t read from the Torah as was tradition for bar mitzvahs, and she didn’t take place on the bimah, the stage that the Torah is read. Instead, she stood below the bimah and read from a separate book after her father read the weekly Torah passage. 

A lot has changed drastically since then. 

By the 1950s half of Conservative temples and one-third of Reform congregations reported holding some sort of bat mitzvah according to Rabbi Balin. With the help of second-wave feminism, Jewish women in the 60s started arguing that they should be reading Torah and have more active parts in their congregations. Older Jewish women began seeking bat mitzvahs that weren’t available when they were younger and began taking part in temple boards.

Now the bat mitzvah is an expectation moving from innovation. Now some synagogues are adapting to the evolving understanding of gender and its expression. There are suggestions and practices for gender-neutral “b-mitzvahs.” 

“People often think of Judaism as something that’s handed down from the older generation to the younger generation,” Judith Rosenbaum, the CEO of the Jewish Women’s Archive told W. “We see the ways that young people also hand things up.”

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