A 1949 announcement in this paper about Bat (or Bas) mitzvah classes
A 1949 announcement in this paper about Bat (or Bas) mitzvah classes

San Francisco’s first bat mitzvah in 1947 paved the way for others

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On a fall day in 1947, a young girl named Marilyn Angel achieved history in San Francisco.

Hers was the first bat mitzvah to take place in the city — although the first in the United States had happened 25 years earlier, a milestone that celebrated its 100th anniversary on March 18.

It was a small notice in the newspaper.

“Marilyn Angel will be inducted into the Jewish faith at a Bas Mitzvah ceremony tonight (Friday) at the late Friday evening service at Temple Beth Israel. The ceremony, performed for the first time in San Francisco, corresponds for girls to the Bar Mitzvah ceremony for boys. Marilyn is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Angel.”

While it took 25 years for the innovative new custom to make it to San Francisco, it opened the doors for girls and young women in the Bay Area to take a greater role in their Jewish communities. A lot of that was due to Beth Israel, which was clearly on the cutting edge at the time, as a second bat mitzvah followed the very next week. (The synagogue, located on Geary near Fillmore, was founded in 1860 as an Orthodox shul but became Conservative and eventually merged with Reform Temple Judea in 1969.)

“Following the services at Temple Beth Israel tonight (Friday) at 8 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. Al Keller and Mrs. Sadie Maissler will be hosts at the reception and buffet supper in the social hall. The Kellers are celebrating the Bas Mitzvah of their daughter, Harriet Lee Keller, and Mrs. Maissler is honoring the birth of a grandson.”

By the next year, Beth Israel was offering bat mitzvah classes for girls, but they still decided in in 1949 that the custom needed an explainer:

“The Beth Israel Bas Mitzvah ceremony, introduced last year, will be continued this year. When a Jewish girl reaches maturity at the age of 12, she is inducted into the Jewish fold in an official ceremony, which has been made a part of the Friday evening services.” Included was a list of nine girls scheduled to have their bat mitzvahs “during the coming season.”

While the J. archives make it appear as if only Beth Israel had adopted this newfangled custom, clearly enough girls were celebrating to make it worthwhile in 1950 to run an advertisement from Waxman’s bookstore on McAllister, which offered “Bar Mitzvah and Bas Mitzvah albums. Also Bridal albums.”

But why wouldn’t have it been embraced across the board? Some thought bat mitzvahs were the thin edge of a wedge that would allow Jewish women to take ever-larger, nontraditional roles in Jewish rituals. Maybe, said Rabbi Elliot Burstein of Beth Israel, that was true — but was that a bad thing?

The issue came up in 1951 when he coolly defended the controversial decision by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan — father of the Reconstructionist movement as well as father of the girl who had been the first American bat mitzvah — to include women in the minyan of his New York synagogue. Burstein pointed out that the Conservative movement was always innovating in “the spirit of Jewish fundamentals.”

“Some of its rabbis have instituted the ceremony of Bas Mitzvah, feminine counterpart of Bar Mitzvah. And most of its affiliated synagogues have women on their boards of directors. Dr. Mordecai Kaplan simply carries this change to its logical conclusion, when he permits women to be counted in a ‘minyan’ and to be called up to the reading of the Torah. While many rabbis have talked about it, he, courageously, has done something about it.”

Burstein was writing as part of a debate in the paper in which the editors canvassed local rabbis and community leaders to comment on Kaplan’s bold move.

Rabbi Aaron Werner of Congregation Chevra Thilim came out swinging. “This latest ‘takonoh’ in the reconstruction movement to include women in Minyan shows weakness in what appears rapidly becoming a decadent movement,” he said.

But Emanu-El’s Rabbi Alvin Fine called it “no problem,” while Rabbi Saul White of Congregation Beth Sholom declined to comment, saying that “this is no practical issue in Jewish life today.”

Burstein’s strong line on bat mitzvahs was characteristic; it was a quirk of the times that Conservative synagogues held a more liberal position on bat mitzvahs than Reform synagogues, which had moved away from b’nai mitzvahs toward confirmation ceremonies (it was not on the table at all at Orthodox synagogues).

But there was no holding back the girls once bat mitzvahs had started.

By 1954 at the latest there were also bat mitzvah classes at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco and Beth Abraham in Oakland.

In fact, Beth Abraham may have been in front of the pack, giving Marilyn Angel some competition for her bat mitzvah “first.” In 1959, this paper wrote at the end of a birth announcement that “Rabbi [Philip] Lipis was spiritual leader of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland from 1947 to 1951. His daughter was the first Bat Mitzvah in the history of the Bay Area Jewish community during that period.” There is no official notice of the event in the paper, however.

It may seem that by the 1970s enough girls were having bat mitzvahs that the debate would be closed. There was even a wave of mothers — and grandmothers — becoming bat mitzvah alongside their own daughters in ceremonies that had been once denied them.

But the debate has persisted to this day — just in a different way. In 2018, J. ran a story about young Esther Thorpe and their nonbinary b’nai mitzvah in the U.K. that explored how to take a gendered ceremony into the future.

“If something is important in your coming-of-age, it should reflect who you are in a person,” said Thorpe’s mother at the time.

Surely Marilyn Angel would have agreed.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.