By Rabbi Carl Choper, Temple Beth Shalom
On March 18, 1922, the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony in history was commemorated in the Reconstructionist synagogue in New York City. One hundred years later, on March 18, 2022, Temple Beth Shalom in Mechanicsburg will mark the centenary of that historic moment during Friday night services.
Before 1922, the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, publicly marking the coming-of-age of a young man in the synagogue, had already existed for centuries. By 1922, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan had come to believe that it was imperative that Judaism in the modern age cease ignoring the coming-of-age of the fifty percent of young adults who were female. When his own eldest daughter, Judith Kaplan, reached the age of Bat Mitzvah, he designed a ceremony that was held at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.
Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan was an important figure in the shaping of American Judaism through most of the 20th century. As Dean of the Teachers’ College of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1909 to 1962, he influenced generations of rabbis and helped the American Jewish community come to understand all of Judaism as a religious civilization organized around the life of the Jewish People.
In addition to founding the Jewish Reconstructionist movement, Rabbi Kaplan participated in the founding of the Conservative movement, co-founded Young Israel, pioneered the establishment of Jewish educational summer camps (including Camp Ramah), represented the American Jewish community at the groundbreaking ceremonies of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and inspired the founding of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
By 1920, Mordecai Kaplan had developed the view that Judaism in America had to emphasize building Jewish community, be boldly creative in practice, and retain a connection to tradition in order to thrive in this new, modern context. In January 1922, he founded the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, which became the first Reconstructionist synagogue. It was within that congregation two months later that the first Bat Mitzvah ceremony in history was held.
Judith Kaplan later became Judith Kaplan Eisenstein when she married Rabbi Ira Eisenstein, who himself later founded the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein became a Jewish musicologist, earning a Ph.D from the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Throughout her career she held a particular interest in developing musical creativity in Jewish community and ceremonial life, publishing books, composing music, developing a series of radio programs, and teaching at three different rabbinical schools. Together, she and Ira raised a family with three children and remained active in the Jewish community and in the Jewish Reconstructionist movement throughout their lives.
In 1993, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein celebrated the tradition of holding a second Bat Mitzvah after reaching the age of eighty-three, a full lifespan of seventy years plus another thirteen years. The last fifteen years of her life, she lived with her husband in Woodstock, New York and Silver Spring, Maryland until her death on February 14, 1996.
In 1993, the rabbi and president of Temple Beth Shalom of Mechanicsburg attended Judith Eisenstein’s second Bat Mitzvah, representing the synagogue as part of the Jewish Reconstructionist movement.
This year Temple Beth Shalom will mark the 100th anniversary during its March 18 Friday night service held on Zoom at 7:15pm.
Those interested in attending may send their name, phone number, email address, and street address to firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a phone message with the synagogue office at 717-697-2662, requesting the Zoom link.