A pioneer looks back

A pioneer looks back

Tenafly woman’s second bat mitzvah evokes memories of the first, with Mordecai Kaplan on the bimah

Felice Kirsh of Tenafly on the eve of her second bat mitzvah. Her first was in 1946.
Felice Kirsh of Tenafly on the eve of her second bat mitzvah. Her first was in 1946.

When she gets on the bimah at Temple Sinai in Tenafly for her second bat mitzvah, Felice Kirsh, also of Tenafly, will have a hard act to follow.

That hard act is her own first bat mitzvah, in 1946, at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism — the Reconstructionist movement’s main synagogue, then as now on 86th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

The rabbi then was Ira Eisenstein, the son-in-law of the movement’s founder, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

And talk about hard acts to follow — Rabbi Kaplan, the shul’s founding but long-retired rabbi, sat on the bimah on the Shabbat of Ms. Kirsh’s bat mitzvah, just as he did every Shabbat.

And then there was the cantor — it was Moshe Nathanson, who wrote the little ditty without which no not-really-Jewish-but-entirely-willing-to-fake-it wedding band could make it. He was the composer of “Hava Nagila.”

And there’s another thing. The Reconstructionist movement’s first bat mitzvah was in 1922; the girl at its center was Judith Kaplan, later Dr. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, Rabbi Eisenstein’s wife. Although neither the SAJ nor the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College knows exactly how many bat mitzvah celebrations there were between 1922 and 1946, the consensus is that there were not very many. The idea did not take off until the 1960s.

So who is Ms. Kirsh, and how did she come to become a bat mitzvah in 1946? And what did she do next?

Felice Rinder was born into a family of shul-goers. Until she was 8, her family lived in the Bronx, and her parents, Harry and Ruth Rinder, were active in their local Conservative synagogue, the Pelham Parkway Jewish Center. When they moved to Manhattan, they checked out local synagogues, and liked the SAJ — which then was close to the Conservative movement in practice, if not theology — best.

When they moved to Manhattan, Felice and her brother, David, went to public school, and then to afternoon and Sunday Hebrew school.

“I don’t know what made my parents decide to do this, but all of a sudden I was going to have a bat mitzvah,” Ms. Kirsh said. “All of a sudden, I was having lessons with Moshe Nathanson, who was a wonderful man, and did the bar mitzvah training.

“There was another girl who had a bat mitzvah two weeks before me, but I don’t remember any before that at all, and we went every week.”

She has no memory of her parents asking her if she wanted to become a bat mitzvah; she also has no memories of ever objecting to the idea. “They treated me and my younger brother the same,” she said. “I have a feeling that they were interested in giving equal opportunities to both of their children, educationally, culturally, and religiously.”

Her bat mitzvah was fairly standard, but there was one thing that made it different from the boys who celebrated becoming bar mitzvah at the same time. “Cantor Nathanson taught me the prayers before and after the Torah and haftarah, and he taught me the haftarah, and he taught me the Torah portion. “But I did not read it directly from the Torah.

“I read it from a piece of paper.

“I think that in those days, as enlightened as they were, even the Reconstructionists were not ready to have a woman read directly from the Torah.

“This time, my bat mitzvah shaini” — her second bat mitzvah — “this will be the first time I read directly from the Torah,” she said. “It will be the fourth time I read this haftarah.” (The other two times were when she graduated from high school and then from college, which, like her birthday, fell in mid-June.)

But the cantor made it up to her and the other girl. “Cantor Nathanson taught us a little extra something to sing at the bat mitzvah,” she said. “He had twin girls, and I think he thought that girls were kind of special.”

She invited “my friends from junior high,” she said. “I believe most of them were Jewish, but of course they had no idea what was going on. Coincidentally, there were 13 of them.”

Rabbis Ira Eisenstein and Mordecai Kaplan both were at Felice Kirsh’s first bat mitzvah.
Rabbis Ira Eisenstein and Mordecai Kaplan both were at Felice Kirsh’s first bat mitzvah.

What to wear was an issue, she added. “There was no precedent. My mother contacted the mother of the previous bat mitzvah to see what she was doing. In the end, I wore a white dress.”

Ms. Kirsh has strong memories of rabbis Mordechai Kaplan and Ira Eisenstein. “I can’t think of any word other than awesome to describe Rabbi Kaplan,” she said. “I used to look at him and think that he looked like an Old Testament prophet. He was a very handsome man, with white hair and a white Van Dyke beard, and piercing blue eyes. To this day, I can hear his voice in my memory. On Yom Kippur afternoon, he would chant the haftarah, the book of Jonah, and I can hear it.

“He used to give hour-long, very esoteric sermons when he was well into his 80s,” she added. “I don’t know how many people could follow what he was saying.”

Neither she nor her parents had a social relationship with Rabbi Kaplan, but there were many of his relatives in the congregation, and she remembers, with some delight, that “he was known among them as Uncle Mark.

“My personal relationship was with Ira Eisenstein,” she continued. “He was a warm, compassionate person, and a wonderful teacher. He taught the confirmation class.

“There were seven of us in that class, four boys and three girls” — the other two girls did not become bat mitzvah, she added. “For two years, on Sunday mornings we would meet in Rabbi Eisenstein’s study, and on Thursdays nights we would meet at his home.” Judith Eisenstein sometimes would bake for them, she said.

“We were confirmed on Shavuot in 1948, and Ira and Judith Eisenstein wrote a new cantata, about hope in a hopeless world, specifically for our class,” Ms. Kirsh said. The confirmation was three years after the Holocaust ended and a month after the state of Israel was declared, so both hopelessness and hope were very much present. “I remember the opening line,” she continued. “It was, ‘How can you be so disgustingly cheerful?’”

Ms. Kirsh, who had begun high school at Hunter, graduated from New Lincoln, a new private school. From there, she went to Pembroke, the women’s college attached to Brown University, graduating in 1954 with a degree in English literature.

From there, Ms. Kirsh moved into information technology, a field that was both brand new and overwhelmingly male. “I started out with programming and analysis, working on an RCA 301-501 system,” she said. It began when she took a test looking for aptitude in spatial relations, which she had; it predicted that she would have talent in computer science, which she did.

Despite changing jobs as her career took off, “I was either the first woman or the only woman,” she said. Her co-workers “couldn’t quite decide if I was the den mother or one of the boys.” She retired, in 2001, as the assistant director of information technology at HIP of New York.

In 1955, Felice Rinder married Robert Kirsh, who died in 2005. They always belonged to a shul. During most of the early part of their marriage, they lived in Manhattan and were active members either of the SAJ or of Town and Village, a Conservative synagogue on East 14th Street.

Mr. Kirsh’s Jewish background was both connected and eclectic, Ms. Kirsh said. His parents, Alexander and Marian Kirsh, who also lived in Manhattan, both were regular shul-goers. “My husband’s father was Orthodox, and belonged to West Side Institutional. His mother was very observant Reform, and every Saturday morning she and her sister would go to Temple Israel. And Bob and I would go to the SAJ.”

In 1959, while she had a full-time job, she went to business school at NYU; because she had to go to night school, and because she had to earn undergraduate science credits to make up for her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, it took Ms. Kirsh four years to graduate.

In the late 1960s, Felice and Bob Kirsh had two children, Michael and Marjorie. In 1975, the family moved to Tenafly, first joining Temple Emanuel of Englewood and then, in 1982, switching to Temple Sinai.

“I love the service at Sinai,” Ms. Kirsh said. “It is very similar to the service I was used to growing up.” Services at Reform synagogues often use much more Hebrew and include more congregational song than was the norm when she grew up.

Did her experience as a girl becoming bat mitzvah at a time when girls just didn’t, affect her decision to become an information technology specialist at a time when girls just didn’t? It’s hard to say either way, she said; after all, a person lives only one life. But it’s hard to overlook the parallels.

Although Ms. Kirsh does not take herself particularly seriously — she is quick to laugh, and she is quick as well to downplay what must have been a serious commitment to overcome obstacles in pursuit of her career, and to balance motherhood and commuting at a time when few women did — she is motivated by her position as a role model.

She has three grandchildren — Phoebe, Robert, and Zoey — “and my older granddaughter will be a bat mitzvah in a Conservative shul in Bridgewater in October,” Ms. Kirsh said. “I want to show them the importance of continued involvement in Judaism as a civilization. Yes, I am quoting Rabbi Kaplan. It is much more than something that you do just once and forget about.”

At her second bat mitzvah, set to begin at 10:30 on June 25 at Temple Sinai, Ms. Kirsh will use the Reconstructionist version of the blessing before the Torah reading, and the congregation will use the Reconstruction version of the Aleinu at the end of services. (Because Rabbi Kaplan did not believe in the idea of chosenness, the phrases that describe God’s having chosen the Jews is replaced by the idea of God’s having drawn the Jews to God’s service.)

“It is such a great way to celebrate her bat mitzvah shaini,” Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jordan Millstein said. “We are celebrating her bat mitzvah, and we are celebrating the fact that Mordecai Kaplan brought the modern bat mitzvah into existence, and equality for women and men in Jewish life was so furthered by that.

“And we have Felice Kirsh, a wonderful member of our congregation, who was one of the pioneers of the bat mitzvah, and she will be able to use the brachot she learned to celebrate her bat mitzvah shaini.

“We will be looking back into her history and celebrating her life. We will be looking backward and looking forward.

“It is a great opportunity, and a great way to celebrate.”

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