Almost four years ago, just after I turned 13, I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. Like so many Jewish teens across the country, I read from the Torah and led my congregation in prayer for the first time. Bar Mitzvahs for boys were first recorded in the 1200s, but it's only been for 100 years that girls have had the right to hold Bat Mitzvahs in America — thanks to a brave girl named Judith Kaplan. One hundred years ago this month, Judith was the first American girl to ever have a Bat Mitzvah, paving the way for women like me to follow in her footsteps.
Today, thousands of girls celebrate their Bat Mitzvahs every year. But back in the early 20th century, a girl publicly marking her entrance into Jewish adulthood was practically unthinkable. Less than two years after women earned the right to vote, Judith’s father, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, argued that Judaism should evolve to expand women’s rights. As the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism and the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ), a synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Rabbi Kaplan encouraged his daughter to have her Bat Mitzvah — the first Bat Mitzvah in America. And on March 18, 1922, the congregation gathered to watch this remarkable 12-year-old girl stand up in the men’s section of her synagogue, publicly celebrate her entrance into adulthood, and make history.
I live with my family just down the block from Judith Kaplan’s synagogue. As members of SAJ, we regularly observe Jewish holidays and Shabbat there. So when I planned my own Bat Mitzvah, I felt honored to celebrate this Jewish rite of passage in the same place as Judith.
During our Bat Mitzvah, Jewish teenagers don’t just read from the Torah, we also write and deliver a speech about what the moment means to us. Because my Bat Mitzvah was going to take place at the same synagogue as Judith’s, I chose to write my speech about how she led the way for teenage girls like me.
I wrote about how Judith didn’t “just” mark the beginning of girls celebrating their Bat Mitzvah, she also helped forge a path toward gender equality. Because of Judith’s courage, women across the country began to push for a larger voice and a bigger role in their synagogues as well. In 1972, Sally Priesand became America's first female rabbi ordained by a rabbinical seminary. In 1997, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance was founded. In recent years, SAJ has started training members as abortion clinic escorts, and synagogues like mine have begun holding B*Mitzvahs for nonbinary teens. I also wrote about how a 12-year-old girl’s powerful first steps back in 1922 helped inspire a century of progress for Jewish women.
In the months leading up to my Bat Mitzvah, I was anxious about how much I had to memorize, and terrified to deliver my speech in front of so many people. But when the day finally arrived, I managed to calmly walk up to the bimah, look out at my congregation, and proudly deliver my remarks. I saw the audience lean in close as I spoke about Judith, and they listened intently as I explained why we need to continue her path toward gender equity. I realized, at just 13 years old, that I could teach those around me — even those decades older than I — something new. I could use my voice to call for change and people would listen.