Judith Kaplan Eisenstein: The First American Bat Mitzvah
by Seymour “Sy” Brody
On March 18, 1922, there was no fireworks display when Judith Kaplan, twelve years old, stepped on the bimah of The Society for the Advancement of Judaism Synagogue to be the first woman to be a bat mitzvah. Rabbi David Mordecai M. Kaplan, her father, was the spiritual leader of this synagogue.
She gave the opening blessing, read a portion of the Torah sidra in Hebrew and in English and closed this historic event with a blessing.
Rabbi Kaplan firmly believed that females should have equal standing with the males in the Jewish religion. Males entered manhood at age thirteen in a formal ceremony called “bar mitzvah.” Until this event, there was no religious ritual for a woman to pass on to womanhood. Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah was the forerunner of the many that followed.
It took a while for the American Conservative movement to define and establish the ceremony for a bat mitzvah. The Orthodox still doesn’t allow females to read from the Torah.
It took many years before the Conservative congregations conducted the bat mitzvah ceremony. By 1960, one-third of the congregations were having bat mitzvahs.
Today, except for the Orthodox congregations, the bat mitzvah is an accepted ceremony for girls advancing into womanhood in about all of the Jewish religious movements.
She married Ira Eisenstein, in 1934, who became her father’s successor in leading the Reconstruction movement. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein had a successful career in Jewish Music.
She studied at the Institute of Musical Art, whose name was changed to the Julliard School. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Columbia University.
Judith taught music education and the history of Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary. 1929 to 1954. She wrote a book of children’s music, “Gateway to Jewish Song,” which was used by most of the Jewish nursery schools.
In 1942, She became active in writing cantatas based on Judaism. She published seven cantatas in collaboration with her husband.
When she was in her fifties, she earned a doctorate at the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music
Judith taught music at the Reform movement seminary and at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which was founded by her husband.
In1992, at age 82, Judith Kaplan Eienstein celebrated a second bat mitzvah surrounded by the leaders of the modern Jewish feminist movement. This time, she read from the Torah scroll.
On February 14, 1996, Judith Kaplan Einstein died.
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