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 chumash. Judith 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.