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First Bat Mitzvahs from Bali to Vilna

Judith Kaplan’s Bat Mitzvah took place 100 years ago. On March 18, 1922, she ascended to the bimah at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York City, read the Torah blessings, and chanted verses from the weekly portion. Thanks partly to her famous father, Lithuanian-born Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and doubtless also partly due to the bright lights of Manhattan, Judith took her place in history as the world’s “first” Bat Mitzvah. Many girls and women have followed her. My Facebook stream was overflowing this weekend with friends displaying photos of their own Bat Mitzvahs.

During my career as a wandering rabbi, I have been privileged to witness the spirit and energy of girls reaching their Jewish adulthood around the globe. Each time I conduct a Bat Mitzvah, whether it has been in Europe or Asia, the ancient ceremony demonstrates how women are reinvigorating Judaism, giving new life to old, fragile and new, aspiring communities.

In actual fact, Judith Kaplan was unlikely to have been the world’s first Bat Mitzvah girl, even if we narrow the definition to the “first Bat Mitzvah girl reading Torah”. In his well-researched “Bar Mitzvah: a history” (2014), Rabbi Michael Hilton outlines how a number of communities around the world celebrated Jewish girls’ coming-of-age from the early nineteenth century. A ceremony was held for a Miss Bevern and a Miss Bernsdorf at the Beer Temple in Berlin in 1817. Thirty years later, Rabbi Adolf Jellinek would use a German equivalent of the phrase “Bat Mitzvah” at a similar ceremony in Leipzig.

Bat Mitzvahs soon spread beyond Germany. Since 1901, annual ceremonies for girls had been held in Alexandria, Egypt. The Encyclopaedia Judaica states that Bat Mitzvah was first introduced in France and Italy, and Hilton notes how Kaplan himself visited Rome in the summer of 1922 and witnessed a ceremony for girls in an Orthodox synagogue there. Hilton also highlights how in the USA, some girls started to read the Ten Commandments from a Torah Scroll during their confirmation ceremonies as early as the 1890s. Judith Kaplan may not even have been the first Bat Mitzvah girl in her own country!

Perhaps it’s not so important who was the first. It’s more important that Judith Kaplan was not the last. And around the Jewish world, other pioneering girls and women have been the first to break their own local barriers in their countries and communities. Each one deserves that their place is recorded in Jewish history.

In 2005, it was my privilege to work with Ludmiła, a young Polish scientist whose determination to chant Torah and celebrate her adult bat mitzvah came to fruition during Parashat Ha’azinu. Later that year her Beit Warszawa community in Poland, where I was serving as a student rabbi, would celebrate its first teenager too. Rachel came to the Torah alongside her brother, David. Nowadays – in less than twenty years – there are several liberal Jewish communities in Poland and female prayer leaders are not uncommon. But at the time there was just one – Beit Warszawa – and this was a real and appreciable “first”. In 2010, I served as rabbi of the Communauté Israélite d’Esch-Sur-Alzette, a traditional shul in Luxembourg’s second city that was leaning liberal in order to ensure its survival. Just how liberal the members wished to become remained an open question. It was far from obvious even to count women in the minyan. Help arrived in the looming coming-of-age of Chiara Wolf, granddaughter of stalwart members of the congregation, Ferdi (z’l) and Paulette Wolf. In May 2010, Chiara celebrated her Bat Mitzvah before a full synagogue, the first girl in Luxembourg to read from the Torah. The portion was Bemidbar, and Chiara wowed the crowd with her lengthy and beautiful cantillation. Today in little more than a decade, the Liberal Jewish Community of Luxembourg is thriving, and Bat Mitzvahs have become commonplace.

Fast-forward to 2017. I had swapped cold European winters for the balmy climes of Singapore. As the “local” rabbi, I visited Bali, Indonesia, where a pair of unique leaders were interested in building an alternative to the local Chabad couple. For many years, Israeli businesswoman Liat Solomon had been hosting Shabbat dinners at her home in Seminyak, a short walk from some of the legendary local beaches. Surfers would come with their boards and lay them down to light Shabbat candles. In partnership with the late Serge Davis (z’l), an elegant Parisian and a simply unique presence, they formed the Kehilat Bnei Hof (which roughly translates as the Bali “Beach Boys”) as a community that included Israelis, Americans, Europeans, Australians – ex-pat Jews who had washed up on this enchanting island.

Under Serge’s tutelage, two siblings, Kanasta and her younger brother Aaron celebrated their Bat and Bar Mitzvah together in the garden of Liat’s villa. I had the joy to officiate the ceremony, alongside our gabbai, Claudia Kravetz, and Cantor Melissa Berman, then working in another “local” community, the UJC of Hong Kong. The portion was Bereshit, and it marked a new beginning in the life of Balinese Judaism. Now to this last Shabbat in Vilnius, on March 19, 2022. Alexandra Zitkauskiene-Khenkin answered the call to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah. She became the first woman in Lithuania to come to the Torah and read the week’s Parashah. She carried the weight of history on her shoulders, breaking barriers in the cradle of the Ashkenazi world and home of the Vilna Shas, the Vilna Gaon and the Vilna Ghetto, an historic city, named by Napoleon as the “Jerusalem of the north.”

Although Litvak Jews have founded non-Orthodox communities around the world, including in the USA, UK and South Africa, it is only now that a revival is taking place in Lithuania itself, an ex-Soviet but thoroughly modern European country with a dynamic and Western-facing contemporary Jewish population. There are left just small remnants of Vilna’s former glories – from its 100+ pre-war synagogues just one has survived – but I am honored to be assisting the locals in their attempts to build a pioneering new progressive community of Liberal Litvaks. This May we anticipate a new milestone with a celebration of the first teenage Bat Mitzvahs as well.

Poland, Luxembourg, Indonesia, Lithuania… none of them are – as yet – fashionable outposts of 21st century Jewish life. None have the glamour of New York City, nor can they today (as both Warsaw and Vilna once could) claim to be the centre of the modern Jewish universe. But in each of these locations, local Jewish women have nonetheless been breaking their glass ceilings and making history. May we honor them and others alongside Judith Kaplan and all the other unsung bat-mitzvah pioneers. May the second century of Bat Mitzvahs see even more celebrations than the first – and through this allow Torah to flourish in every corner of the world.

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