New Exhibition on Bat Mitzvah to Open in NYC: Exhibition and Programs Celebrate Bat Mitzvah’s 90th Anniversary

Monday, June 25, 2012

To mark the 90th anniversary of Judith Kaplan’s bat mitzvah, the National Museum of American Jewish History and Moving Traditions have 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 their rabbis challenged and changed communal values and practice to institute this now widely practiced Jewish ritual.  The co-curators of the exhibit are Rabbi Carole B. Balin, Professor of Jewish History at HUC-JIR/New York; independent curator Lori Perlow; and Josh Perelman, the Museum's chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections.

Bat Mitzvah Comes of Age opens March 6, 2012 and continues through April 27 at The Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at The JCC in Manhattan, and will travel to communities throughout North America.

On Saturday morning, March 18, 1922 – two years after American women received the right to vote – Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan summoned his daughter, Judith, to the front of the synagogue sanctuary where she read from her own Bible in Hebrew and English along with the requisite blessings. With this revolutionary act, Judith Kaplan and her father initiated what would become the widespread American Jewish practice of bat mitzvah.

"This exhibition illustrates important linkages between the movement for women's equality and the development of American Judaism," said Dr. Josh Perelman.   "Through the lens of bat mitzvah it shows how individuals have the power to make change happen and the ripple effects that accompany these changes, which in itself is not just a Jewish story" he added.  

The exhibit is based on more than 150 responses to Moving Traditions’ “Bat Mitzvah Firsts” survey. The selected personal stories range across the American-Jewish spectrum, from secular to ultra-Orthodox and from small town to urban center.

“In conducting research for the exhibition, we heard from women who were willing to raise their voices and challenge the gender expectations of their time; these ‘bat mitzvah pioneers’ moved girls and women from the margins to the center of Jewish life,” said Deborah Meyer, Moving Traditions Founder and Executive Director. “That bat mitzvah – once a radical innovation – is now a nearly universal tradition shows how Judaism continues to evolve in each generation.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum will feature a series of programs the last two Sundays in March, including on March 25 a presentation by Mayim Bialik and a panel discussion on coming of age in America, featuring leading scholars on Jewish ritual and rites of passage. On both Sundays, the Museum will host “Collect-o-Rama,” in which visitors will explore and share bat mitzvah stories through personal artifacts or photographs, and have their objects considered for the Museum’s collection.  (See related release for more details.)

Jewish law states that girls automatically reach religious maturation at 12 years and a day, and boys at 13 and a day. This milestone is commonly known as bat or bar mitzvah, meaning “daughter or son of the commandment.” Public rituals for bat mitzvah developed in the 20th century, while bar mitzvah ceremonies have existed since the Middle Ages.

Most early b’not mitzvah (Hebrew plural for bat mitzvah) were held on Friday evening, when Torah is traditionally not read. Today, in egalitarian congregations, a bat mitzvah ceremony generally looks identical to a bar mitzvah, with girls chanting Torah on Saturday morning. More traditional congregations might observe any of a diversity of practice, such as a girl delivering a shiur (lesson) or chanting Torah in the presence of women only.

The exhibition will include oral history recordings of bat mitzvah stories from around the country and across Jewish movements, a timeline of relevant historical milestones and an interactive component in which visitors can share their coming-of-age story and photos.

Weaving the stories of the evolution of American Jewish life with 20th century feminism, the exhibition will include narratives and artifacts from everyday trendsetters to prominent women, such as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and activist Ruth Messinger, to illustrate the substantial impact of bat mitzvah on Jewish life across the religious spectrum, and on the girls (now women) themselves.

“I have always felt very proud to have had a bat mitzvah. It was groundbreaking and I believe helped formulate my thinking about what it meant to be a Jewish woman,” said Phyllis Teicher Goldman, whose 1960 bat mitzvah was the first on a Friday night at Beth-El Synagogue in New Rochelle, N.Y. A telegram that Teicher Goldman received from her family in Miami congratulating her on her bat mitzvah is reproduced in the exhibition.

The National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall East in Philadelphia, presents educational programs and experiences that preserve, explore and celebrate the history of Jews in America. The Museum interprets how Jews shape and are shaped by America, explores the blessings and challenges of freedom, and provides opportunities for visitors to contribute their own stories.

Moving Traditions sparks a passion for Jewish life through research, educator-training, and educational programming focusing on gender and Judaism. Its award-winning programs, Rosh Hodesh: It's a Girl Thing! andShevet Achim: The Brotherhood, stem the exodus from Jewish life after b’nai mitzvah and inspire teen girls and boys to become engaged and self-aware Jewish leaders.

Celebrating 10 years on 76th and Amsterdam, the JCC is a vibrant non-profit community center on the Upper West Side. The cornerstone of progressive programming in Manhattan, the JCC serves over 55,000 people annually through 1,200 programs each season that educate, inspire, and transform participants' minds, bodies, and spirits. Since its inception, the JCC has been committed to serving the community by offering programs and services that reach beyond neighborhood boundaries. Programs at the JCC reach people at all stages of their lives, and serve the entire family and community.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu