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From 1922 to 2023: 101 years of Bat Mitzvah

Published March 17th, 2023 in In the News | Comments Off on From 1922 to 2023: 101 years of Bat Mitzvah

The month of March was declared National Women’s History Month in 1987 by a special proclamation from President Ronald Regan, acknowledging the significant history and achievements of women.  President Jimmy Carter had previously declared the week of March 7th, Women’s History Week, but the expansion to a full month was intended to encourage and recognize even more women in history both in America and internationally. In March of 2023, it’s often hard for younger generations to imagine an America without women having the right to vote or being acknowledged equally with men, but that has only been a reality for just over 103 years.  

In Jewish tradition, the concept of a young girl being called up to the Torah to recite the blessings and read from the sacred scroll has become commonplace in many Jewish communities, but that has also not always been the case. Men and boys have had the ability to be called up to, read from the Torah, and become a Bar Mitzvah (a son of the Jewish Commandments) dating back centuries. The opportunity for a woman to become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the Jewish Commandments, has only been happening for the last 101 years. 

On March 18th, 1922, Judith Kaplan took the monumental and brave first step beginning the journey of the institution of Bat Mitzvahs in America. Judith was the daughter of Rabbi Mordechi Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and she participated in the Saturday morning service that day in a way that girls had not previously been allowed.  

Although the modern idea of a Bat Mitzvah may involve memorizing Torah verses and a lavishly  themed party celebration after, Judith’s Bat Mitzvah looked very different.  She was called up to the front of the congregation at the conclusion of the regular Torah service and recited a few verses from a book version of the Torah known as a chumashJudith reflected on the day’s event saying, “No thunder sounded. No lightning struck.”  While Judith was most likely very nervous about the events of that day, she set into motion the path for Jewish women that has led to 101 years of Bat Mitzvahs, and counting. 

The Jewish idea of “L’Dor V’Dor” that we continue to pass the teachings of Torah from Generation to Generation includes all members of the Jewish community.  It’s not always easy being the first one to take the first step but that is how we can create traditions for a new generation.  Let’s celebrate women this month both in secular American culture as well as in Jewish tradition.  

To learn more about the history of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, click here for a wonderful article written for the Union of Reform Judaism by Rabbi John L. Roseove, Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood.  

More information about Judith Kaplan and other amazing women in Jewish History is available through the Jewish Women’s Archive.

The Remarkable Rabbi Who Hosted Martin Luther King for a Shabbat Sermon in 1965

Published February 23rd, 2023 in In the News | Comments Off on The Remarkable Rabbi Who Hosted Martin Luther King for a Shabbat Sermon in 1965

Senior Rabbi Max Nussbaum with Martin Luther King, Jr. Courtesy of Temple Israel of Hollywood

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke from the bimah of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles on Shabbat evening, February 26, 1965, five days after the assassination of Malcolm X. Security was tight around the synagogue on that evening. Sharpshooters were placed on the apartment building across the street on Hollywood Boulevard. The Sanctuary was filled to capacity with 1400+ congregants.

Rabbi Max Nussbaum (1908-1974) was the Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood from 1942 to his death in 1974. He was born in Romania, graduated with a doctoral degree from the University of Wurzburg, and was ordained by the liberal German rabbinic seminary in Breslau, Germany (on the Polish border east of Berlin) in 1936. He served as a community rabbi in Berlin until 1940 under Rabbi Leo Baeck, the titular leader of German Jewry before World War II.

Rabbi Nussbaum and his wife Ruth, were married in Berlin in 1938 by Rabbi Baeck under the watchful eye of the Gestapo. They remained in Berlin in order to give comfort and solace to the Berlin Jewish community as the Nazis escalated their persecution of the Jewish people. When Max and Ruth learned that the Gestapo was planning to arrest him, they fled to Amsterdam in the middle of the night, then to Portugal, bought passage on a ship, and finally arrived in the United States. They met with The New York Times to describe the dire situation of German Jewry and then with the German Jewish Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a leading American Zionist and Max’s mentor and friend, had arranged for him to enter the United States with the promise of a rabbinic position serving a small congregation in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1940 where Max learned English (Ruth was already a fluent English speaker). In 1942, he was elected Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles.

The TIOH bulletin from February 25, 1965. Courtesy of Temple Israel of Hollywood

Max was a strong labor Zionist and an articulate liberal social justice activist, and it was as a consequence of his national and international prominence that he met and befriended Dr. King leading to the invitation of Dr. King to speak at Temple Israel in February of 1965.

Rabbi Nussbaum reminded the congregation that evening that since it was Shabbat, following custom and consistent with Rabbi Nussbaum’s German Jewish respect for decorum that applause following Dr. King’s remarks would be inappropriate. In his introduction of Dr. King, Rabbi Nussbaum instructed the filled sanctuary: “You will wish to applaud, and you will not do so!”

The existence of Dr. King’s recorded speech, a part of the Temple Israel of Hollywood archives, was discovered by the wider Los Angeles Jewish community in 2006. The Los Angeles Jewish Journal contacted me, as the then Senior Rabbi of the congregation (1988-2019), before the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend to request permission to write a story about it. National Public Radio learned of the speech’s recording from the LAJJ article and requested permission to air it nationally. I happily agreed and the speech was broadcast on the MLK holiday weekend in both 2007 and 2008. The recording is now part of Temple Israel’s annual Martin Luther King Holiday celebration.

The sound quality of the recording is exceptionally clear. The speech borrows from many addresses that Dr. King delivered over the course of his career. He was only 35 years old when he spoke that night in February 1965.

You can listen to and read a transcript of his remarks here –

This blog was originally posted to The Times of Israel website and can be found here: