Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age

April 9 - September 15, 2013

On Saturday morning, March 18, 1922 – two years after American women received the right to vote – Judith Kaplan, daughter of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, became the first American girl to mark her bat mitzvah during a public worship service.

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With this revolutionary act, she and her father initiated what would become the widespread American Jewish practice of bat mitzvah. To mark the 90th anniversary of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, the National Museum of American Jewish History and Moving Traditions collaborated to organize a traveling exhibition, Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age, featuring the remarkable story of how, in less than a century, individual girls, their parents and rabbis challenged and changed communal values and practice to institute this now widely observed Jewish ritual. As the only venue in the southeast to display Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age, Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU will draw Florida connections to the exhibit, represented by the stories of more than 40 bat mitzvah ceremonies around the state and spanning many decades.

The stories of bat mitzvah “firsts,” as told in this exhibit range from secular to ultra-Orthodox and from small town to urban center. It includes the stories of everyday trendsetters and prominent women, such as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, community leader Ruth Messinger and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, a Floridian, which illustrate the substantial impact of bat mitzvah on Jewish life and on each of the featured women.

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This exhibition explores how the tradition of bat mitzvah has evolved and the related changes it sparked in Jewish education, practice and leadership, highlighting the critical role girls played in bringing equality to a patriarchal religion. The exhibit also serves as a catalyst to explore how rites of passage are celebrated in various cultures and religions.

Surely, the young Judith Kaplan could never have dreamed that by the time she celebrated her second bat mitzvah in 1992, at the age of 82, the ceremony would be a nearly universal Jewish expectation. Historically, bat mitzvah, the change in status that occurs automatically for girls at 12 years and a day according to Jewish law, had no standard ceremony to accompany it until the 20th century. By contrast, the bar mitzvah ceremony was developed at least as early as the 16th century. In the decades following 1922, some summer camps and several synagogues accepted the ritual and began preparing girls to celebrate their b'not mitzvah. Without a standard practice, the curricula varied widely, from studying Bible, to creating haggadot, to discussing the proper way to set a Shabbat table.

Although few b'not mitzvah took place in the 1930s and 40s, rabbis were already actively debating the merits of what one termed a "bar mitzvah of girls." If such ceremonies took hold, would girls be allowed to participate in public Jewish ritual on a regular basis or would the rights associated with bat mitzvah be considered a one-time privilege?

These theoretical questions became reality as the number of bat mitzvah ceremonies climbed in the 1950s, with more than half of all Conservative and more than one-third of Reform congregations implementing the ritual. In 1955, the Committee on Law and Standards of the Conservative movement accepted calling women to the Torah (aliyah) on a regular basis, as a legal minority view. However, it became the collective responsibility of girls, along with supportive parents and rabbis, to speak up and out towards making the practice commonplace. Following her bat mitzvah in St. Louis in 1950, Dee Radman Hermann responded, "I can do anything I want if I pursue it," when asked about the lessons she learned in training for her special day.

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By the 1960s, when the bat mitzvah ceremony had become virtually ubiquitous in Conservative and Reform synagogues, rabbis looked to the rite as a boon to their communities for many reasons. As one rabbi observed, "The natural byproduct of the Friday evening bat mitzvah celebration is an increase in synagogue attendance.” The virtues of bat mitzvah for girls extended to the community at large.

By the time the women’s rights movement of the 1970s emerged, the practice of bat mitzvah had become all but normalized. Like all Americans, Jews began to redress the imbalance that resulted in large numbers of women being undereducated. With expanding opportunities, women broadened their Jewish knowledge and skills, culminating for some in adult bat mitzvah. During the last quarter century, the bat mitzvah came to look identical to the bar mitzvah in all but traditional congregations and even many ultra-Orthodox Jews recognize a girl's coming-of-age in various ways.

As the Florida connection section of the exhibit will explain, the trends in Florida bat mitzvah ceremonies mirror those around the nation, starting with a handful of brave girls in the 1950s and increasing as the ritual grew in popularity over time. Today, bat mitzvah celebrations are as common as bar mitzvah in our state, except in Orthodox communities. Though many Orthodox girls have some form of bat mitzvah ritual, the ceremonies are often held in alternative locations. Three such b’not mitzvah were held at the Jewish Museum of Florida, which is often rented for events in the community.

Sponsors include Congregation Beth Jacob and the Robert Arthur Segall Foundation.

The museum will present a full array of public education programs to complement the themes of the exhibit, from panel discussions to performances, with multicultural components to attract diverse segments of the community. Click here to see what's on the calendar.