A Historic Moment – May 31, 2013

It is difficult for women in their twenties and thirties to imagine a time when they could not be rabbis, cantor, synagogue presidents or even have a bat mitzvah. Life has changed so dramatically within the last forty years for women. Gender roles today are fluid and constantly changing. There are few stereotypes any longer. Women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, presidents of universities, combat soldiers, doctors, lawyers, and yes, even rabbis. I remember once hearing from a female rabbi in whose synagogue all the clergy were women. When a male rabbi visited, a child in the religious school said to her, “I didn’t know boys could become rabbis!” So much has our world changed over the last few decades.
My generation has been on the cutting edge of this change. I was in the first class at Franklin and Marshall College in which women were matriculated. My class at the Hebrew Union College had the most women, 25%, of any previous class. It is inconceivable to us that our wives and daughters cannot achieve professionally whatever they are capable of doing. On trend we have regrettably seen is that when women enter a field, men seem to leave it. There are today more women than men in law schools. There are far more female rabbinic students than male rabbinic students. There are many more women active in synagogue life than men. There is a phenomenon that exists in Reform Jewish life in which men are reluctant to become part of synagogue leadership. No one is quite sure why this is so, but it is part of this same overall societal trend. We are fortunate in Oheb Shalom in that men are still willing and eager to assume positions of leadership along with female lay leaders.
The first bat mitzvah was held in New York City in 1921 when Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, allowed his daughter, Judith, to chant from the Torah when she was thirteen. His wife and mother were so appalled by this that they insisted she chant Torah in their apartment rather than their synagogue. Kaplan preached gender equality long before it became generally accepted in American society. Bat mitzvah first caught on in the Conservative Movement, which was understandable considering Kaplan taught at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, where he had a profound influence upon his rabbinic students. I remember my sister’s bat mitzvah held in 1966. It was part of the Erev Shabbat service at our Conservative synagogue. She was not allowed to read from the Torah but participated in the service, did a D’var Torah, and read from the Haftarah portion. This attempt at gender equality did not pass muster for the more progressive elements of the Jewish community. Women wanted the same privileges and responsibilities as men. They wanted to lead the service and chant from the Torah on Shabbat morning just as did men. This equalization of bat mitzvah ritual practice began in a few Reform synagogues and quickly spread throughout the country. By the late 1970’s, bat mitzvah became ubiquitous in Reform synagogues throughout the land. Tonight we mark the fortieth anniversary of the first bat mitzvah at Temple Oheb Shalom which was celebrated on May 26, 1973.
I offer our thanks to our volunteer par excellence, Alissa Heneson, who, while reading board minutes for the last fifty years uncovered the debate and subsequent approval of bat mitzvah. As Alissa recounts, “The idea for celebrating a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Oheb Shalom first arose in November, 1972. The Board had a subcommittee of the Divine Service and Choir Committee look into the issue and, in January 1973, they recommended approval. At the semi-annual congregational meeting later in January, the approximately 125 members in attendance almost unanimously endorsed the idea, with three stipulations: 1. Bat mitzvah would be provided to any girl who desired to become one. 2. The bat mitzvah would have to meet the same requirements as a bar mitzvah and 3. Bat mitzvah, like bar mitzvah, would be held on Shabbat mornings.”
We are honored to have with us this Erev Shabbat, Dr. Jonas Rappaport, an esteemed long time member of Oheb Shalom, whose daughter, Sally, was the first official bat mitzvah at Temple Oheb Shalom. I now invite Dr. Rappaport to the bima to share his recollections of that historic moment.

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