Jewish tradition ordains that girls automatically reach religious maturity at the age of twelve. But historically a girl’s transition from child to adult was not marked communally, either in or outside a synagogue. Women had no part in the public reading of the Torah, except as listeners, segregated in the women’s gallery. Thus, when bat mitzvah emerged as a regularized rite in the Jewish lifecycle of a girl, the procedure varied from synagogue to synagogue and evolved over time.
For American Jews, this process famously began in 1922 (two years after women were guaranteed the right to vote in the United States) when Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, arranged for his daughter Judith to celebrate becoming a bat mitzvah (plural b’not mitzvah; bas mitzvah in Ashkenazic pronunciation) at a public synagogue ceremony. But in fact, her ceremony did not involve a full aliyah to the Torah (going up to the Torah and reciting blessings over its reading) and was thus a much-diminished version of what boys did. It bore considerable resemblance to a way of celebrating this passage in the synagogue that some girls in Italy and France had begun even earlier.
The 1940s saw a growth in bat mitzvah ceremonies triggered by a desire to bolster Jewish education for girls. They began proliferating after World War II, when Conservative, rather than Reconstructionist, leaders saw it as a way to energize Jews who were moving from urban Jewish enclaves to the suburbs, where they lived alongside gentiles. Bat mitzvah was part of the rabbinic arsenal for keeping newly trick-or-treating Jews in the fold. By the end of the decade, one-third of Conservative congregations had instituted the rite as its visibility prodded Reform and Orthodox rabbis to consider instituting it as well. By the end of the 20th century, in almost all non-Orthodox congregations, girls were celebrating their coming of age as b’not mitzvah through much the same ceremonies their brothers experienced, often with female rabbis joining the girls on the bimah.
The late associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who did not have a bat mitzvah, once told the Forward, a Jewish media outlet, that she was jealous of the bar mitzvah gifts her cousin received. In 1973, Elena Kagan became the first girl to have a bat mitzvah at Lincoln Square synagogue (modern Orthodox) in Manhattan; the future associate justice of the Supreme Court insisted on it because her older brother had a bar mitzvah. And in 2021, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords celebrated her bat mitzvah at age 51; “It is never too late to explore faith” she said.
Three recent developments are now shaping bat mitzvahs. Many families, particularly those with shy girls, hold less-public ceremonies, such as on Monday or Thursday morning, when the Torah is read with fewer people in attendance. Environmentally conscious bat mitzvahs are on the rise, including rustic ones at summer camps, and pandemic-necessitated Zoom bat mitzvahs, which were liberating to many, may be here to stay.
Bat mitzvah rode 1970s second-wave feminism to new heights and helped pave the way — slowly — for equal rights for women. Congregations seeing and hearing women’s voices in synagogue made American Jews more comfortable with the idea. It took 50 years after the first bat mitzvah in March 1922 until the first female rabbi was ordained in the United States, and the first female American cantors followed.