On Saturday, March 18, 1922, Judith Kaplan stood before her father’s congregation and became the first female in the U.S. to publicly read from the Torah, thus becoming the first bat mitzvah (daughter of the commandment).
This was a historic moment for Jewish women’s equality. Judith, 12, was the eldest of four daughters of progressive Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who believed strongly in egalitarianism.
On Saturday, Dec. 4, 1965, my 12-year-old self stood before our congregation, ready to read from an actual Torah scroll. In the generations that followed Kaplan’s bold move, the bat mitzvah service became accepted within liberal branches of Judaism, providing young women equal “rights” of passage. I, also the eldest of four children, would become the first bat mitzvah in our family.
This religious responsibility required a great deal of study. My formal education started with Sunday school when I was in kindergarten. When I reached second grade, it expanded with the addition of Hebrew school. But my greatest knowledge about Judaism came from my mother, the daughter of an orthodox rabbi.
My mother brought joyful observance of the Jewish holidays to life in our progressive home. During my most intensive year of study she listened to me practice, made certain my Hebrew pronunciation was correct and gave me several books to help me write my talk.
Judith Kaplan was a confident, graceful and precocious teen. I was shy, gawky and self-conscious. Though the Jewish community would accept me as a young adult upon completion of my bat mitzvah service, when the day finally arrived I didn’t feel like an adult.
I was terrified of standing before so many people. I was queasy, and my mouth was unbearably dry.
Rabbi Shalom Singer, of blessed memory, handed me a glass of water before beginning the service. I walked across the bimah (synagogue platform), hoping I wouldn’t forget everything I’d learned. Soon I was leading a responsive reading. The congregation recited the alternating lines loudly and in unison. I noticed that everyone was smiling at me. I felt reassured.
When the service concluded, I was greatly relieved. People engulfed me. I heard “Mazel tov!,” “Beautiful job!” and even “What a meaningful service!” My sense of relief shifted to an unprecedented sense of accomplishment. That moment has remained with me.
Years passed and it was time for the next generation — our children — to become b’nai mitzvah. I recognized that the lessons of this rite of passage go far beyond liturgy. The wisdom of its timing coincides with a vulnerable period in life — pain from peers can be alienating, raging hormones can make one’s body feel strange, and the need for belonging is particularly strong.
I’m grateful that Judith Kaplan pioneered this tradition so that women, including our daughter and me, could become b’not mitzvah. I hope our daughter and our two sons will always remember the lessons they learned, and that their Jewish rite of passage will be a moment that stays with each of them throughout their lifetimes.
Debby Simon of Overland Park is a Faith Walk writer for The Star. She can be reached at email@example.com.