Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age

by Sally Gottesman

“There isn’t a lot of time left.”

One afternoon six years ago after a conversation with Aaron Lansky, Founder and President of the National Yiddish Book Center, who in the 1980s recognized the urgency to rescue Yiddish books – it hit me – if we were going to preserve the stories of girls, parents and rabbis who had transformed bat mitzvah from a radical act to a communal norm, a paradigm shift second to none in the American Jewish community, then we needed to do it now. The first bat-mitzvah was in March, 1922, ninety years ago this month, and that celebrant, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, was dead, as was her father and the rabbi for that historic event, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan.

Concurrently, Moving Traditions, which I co-founded and Chair, wanted to know, “How is new ritual adopted?” We were asking this in light of the success of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and our desire to establish Rosh Hodesh as an ongoing ritual in adolescent girls lives, rather than a take-it-or-leave-it-program at schools, synagogues and JCCs across America.

Together – these two ideas lit a spark!

I had long been interested in the transformation and adoption of bat-mitzvah in America. For years I’d maintained a running list of women who had a first bat-mitzvah in their community. Some were household names – author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, AJWS President Ruth Messinger, JCC in Manhattan Executive Director Rabbi Joy Levitt, Supreme Court Justice Elana Kagan, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles – and some weren’t. Moving Traditions contacted the women we knew and asked if they would tell us their story. Almost all did. We then used an internet survey to find others who’d been involved in pioneering a bat-mitzvah in their community. Over 150 people from all denominations, all decades since 1922, and all over the United States, replied.

What did Moving Traditions learn that can help the adoption of Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! or Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood, our work with teen boys?

The most important lesson was, ironically, obvious. There are many steps to adaptation and change within the same synagogue. There is the first Friday night bat-mitzvah, the first Saturday morning bat-mitzvah, the first to read Haftorah, the first to be called for an aliyah on a Shabbat after her bat-mitzvah, and so on. The rate and order of change aren’t uniform across communities we must adapt to local “customs” while still keeping our end-goal in mind.

We also learned that change almost always involved a partnership of the girl, the rabbi, and the parents. All three had to be engaged and motivated. (It is interesting to note that many of the parents of bat-mitzvah pioneers, like Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, had only daughters. This seems to have motivated parents – either because they subscribed to fewer Jewish gender-norms in their families or they realized that they’d never have the opportunity to celebrate their children’s “coming of age” unless bat-mitzvah existed.) Thus, we now know if we are to establish new Jewish rituals in the lives of teens we must engage their parents and rabbis, as well as the teens themselves.

Finally, we learned that the change was “easier” because the wind was at the back of girls’ and women’s growing engagement in public life in general. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein’s bat-mitzvah was two years after American women won the right to vote. This tells the story.

In order to engage more people in the ongoing story of bat-mitzvah – where we have been and where we are going – Moving Traditions, in partnership with The National Museum of American Jewish History, developed a traveling exhibit, Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age. At the JCC in Manhattan now through April 27th and slated for venues around the country, this exhibit highlights bat-mitzvah pioneers telling their own stories in their own voices.

I, for one, am thankful we haven’t lost the history of bat-mitzvah. Now though Moving Traditions is turning its attention to the future and asking “what should bat (and bar) mitzvah look like in 2022?”

We know the future involves wrestling with the coming-of-age-questions: What does it mean to be a man? A woman? A Jew? A Jewish woman? A Jewish man? What is obligation? What is choice? What does it mean to undergo a rite-of-passage into a community?

Not one woman we surveyed described her bat-mitzvah as her graduation from Jewish life. Unfortunately, thousands of girls and boys who will have their bat or bar mitzvah this year will say “I’ve graduated” from Jewish education and the Jewish community. And parents and rabbis accept this, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes with approval. But Moving Traditions is seeking ways to transform this “graduation” into a “stepping stone” to greater involvement in the Jewish community. We want to make this a rite-of-passage into, rather than from.

In order to do this Moving Traditions is finding ways to (re) create bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah and establish it as a stepping stone to rituals that hold meaning for at their life-stage. Rosh Hodesh: It’s a Girl Thing! and Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood are two such rituals.

The time is now! History is our guide.

Sally Gottesman had the first Saturday morning bat-mitvah at Congregation Shomrei Emunah, Montclair, New Jersey, in 1975. For more information and videos about Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age visit the website or click the image above.