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Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age: 90 Years of Transforming Jewish Girls to Women

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This year marks a double simcha for American Jews. It is the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman rabbi and the 90th anniversary of the first girl to become a bat mitzvah during a worship service.

I wonder whether Judith Kaplan -- who pioneered the bat mitzvah at her father Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's synagogue in 1922, two years after women got the vote -- could have imagined that the President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion would ordain Sally Priesand 50 years later?

Could the young Judith have dreamed that, by the time she celebrated her second bat mitzvah in 1992 at the age of 82, the ceremony would be transformed from a radical act into a nearly universal Jewish expectation? After all, 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. In contrast, the bar mitzvah ceremony began to develop at least as early as the 16th century.

In a mere nine decades, the bat mitzvah has become commonly celebrated across the Jewish spectrum, from secular to ultra-Orthodox, and thousands of women who missed the opportunity as girls have followed their daughters to mark their bat mitzvah as adults.

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Sally Priesand's ordination of 1972 spawned a revolutionary change in Jewish life. It empowered countless girls and women to seek leadership in their communities. Sally Rappeport recalls that, in 1973 when she became the first girl in Baltimore to mark her bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning, "Rabbi Priesand ... was a role model ... I loved that connection -- from Sally to Sally." The epic effect of female clergy on Jewish life concerns us during this anniversary year as we celebrate the vatikot (female elders) who paved a path for future generations.

And so, too, in 2012, we honor all those bat mitzvah pioneers who "became women" at the excruciatingly awkward age of 12 or 13 in the presence of hundreds of their closest friends and family. They are the girls-in-heels (often, for the first time) who ascended the bimah (for the first time) before the movement toward gender equality in the American and Jewish communities took root in the '60s and '70s.

Carole Leve Tavel, who became the first bat mitzvah in Indianapolis in 1950 at her rabbi's suggestion, remembers the pressure. "People were scanning the text," she says, "hoping I would make a mistake that would embarrass both of us." That same year, across the country in North Hollywood, Calif., "the elders of the congregation threw their tallesim over their heads and walked out" to protest her Saturday morning bat mitzvah, according to Sandra Jacoby Klein.

For those who wish to learn more about these young change makers, the exhibit "Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age" is coming to a neighborhood near you. It opens this month at the JCC of Manhattan and will travel nationally. The stories of bat mitzvah firsts, as told in their recorded voices and through their memorabilia, illustrate the critical role girls played in bringing equality to a patriarchal religion.

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?

The theoretical question became real 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 them. 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. How, they argued, could a bat mitzvah girl have an aliyah and then never be given such an honor again? Not all agreed. As Sherry Rosen says about her 1960 bat mitzvah first in Wheeling, West Virginia: "Immediately after, everything snapped back. And a woman would be invited up to the bimah only to light the candles."

It had become the collective responsibility of girls, along with supportive parents and rabbis, to speak up and out.

By the 1960s, when the bat mitzvah 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. It is also worthwhile to record that the spirit of the bar, which is too prevalent at the religious initiation of a boy, is as yet the case of the bat mitzvah, which is confined to a more modest and dignified Oneg Shabbat (reception) after the service." The virtues of bat mitzvah extended beyond girls -- and boys -- to the community at large.

With the emergence of the women's rights movement of the 1970s, the practice of bat mitzvah was all but normalized. Like all Americans, Jews began to redress the imbalance that resulted in large numbers of women being under-educated. With expanding opportunities, women broadened their Jewish knowledge and skills, culminating for some in adult bat mitzvah.

At the same time, more traditional congregations made attempts to mark the bat mitzvah publicly, often in settings outside of regular worship services. For her bat mitzvah, Lisa Edlin Lawrence "had to advocate pretty fiercely" for the privilege of leading a worship service and reading Torah at her Orthodox synagogue in 1972 (exactly three months after the Priesand ordination and in the same city of Cincinnati). Though she was allowed to lead from the bimah, the ceremony took place on a Sunday when she read from a book rather than the Torah scroll itself.

During the last quarter century, the bat mitzvah has come to look identical to the bar mitzvah in all but traditional congregations, and even ultra-Orthodox Jews recognize a girl's coming-of-age.

In an era of BTDT (textspeak for "been there done that"), this mother of a 13-year old girl prays that these groundbreakers will teach our teens a thing or two.

"I can do anything I want if I pursue it," responded Dee Radman Hermann when asked about the lesson gleaned from her St. Louis bat mitzvah in 1950.

"Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age" is on view at the JCC of Manhattan until April 27 and will then travel nationally. Culled from over 150 collected stories of "firsts," it features audio recordings and photos chronicling a diversity of practice, dress and celebration, as well as a module for visitors to tell their coming-of-age stories. It is a collaboration of the National Museum of American Jewish History of Philadelphia and Moving Traditions, which is known for its award-winning programs 'Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing!' and 'Shevet Achim: The Brotherhood.'