This Day in Jewish History

2010: The Girl Who Rattled the Rabbi Grows Up, Joins Supreme Court

Elena Kagan wasn't the first Jew or woman on the top bench, but she was surely the first to demand to a proper bat-mitzvah.

Bloomberg

On August 5, 2010, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

Kagan was certainly not the first Jewish justice of the high court – she’s number eight. Nor is she the first female Jewish justice – that distinction went to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when she joined the court in 1993. But Kaganwas surely the first High Court justice to have sparred with her family’s rabbi at age 13, when she wanted to have a real bat mitzvah, not just a party.

Elena Kagan was born in New York City on April 28, 1960. She was the second of the three children of Robert Kagan, a lawyer, and the former Gloria Gittleman, a teacher. Her father specialized in real-estate law, from the point of view of tenants, and was a long-time member of the community planning board of Manhattan’s West Side. Gloria taught at the Hunter College Elementary School, a highly selective New York public primary school.

While Elena was growing up, at 75th St. and West End Ave., her parents were among early members of the nearby Lincoln Square Synagogue, which was then led by the charismatic young Orthodox rabbi Shlomo Riskin.

An uneasy compromise

Riskin was the rabbi in 1973 when Elena Kagan turned 13 and demanded a religious bat mitzvah, on a Shabbat morning, where she could read from the Torah.

“This was really the first formal bat mitzvah we had," Riskin told The New York Times in 2010. Maybe so, but Riskin did not assent to having Kagan read from the Torah (she read from the Book of Ruth), and her ceremony took place on a Friday night.

“I don’t think I satisfied her completely,” added Riskin, who a decade later moved to Israel and who has for the past three decades been the chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat. But Kagan, he told the Times, “certainly raised my consciousness.”

Many years later, Elena’s parents moved next door, to the new, fully egalitarian, Reconstructionist West End Synagogue, where Robert served as president.

Kagan attended Hunter College High School, where she had herself photographed for her senior yearbook in a judge’s robes and holding a gavel.

Foo on Harvard

Her academic progress was stellar: She graduated cumma cum laude from Princeton University, where her senior history thesis was on socialism in New York City in the early decades of the 20th century. She also gained a master’s in philosophy from Worcester College, Oxford, before matriculating at Harvard Law School – disappointing her father, a Yale graduate.

When Kagan joined the Supreme Court, it was with no judicial experience. She had clerked for two federal judges, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, taught law at the University of Chicago, and, worked in the White House of Bill Clinton, who did nominate her for a vacancy in an appeals court (a nomination that died when the Senate refused to act on it).

In 1999, Kagan joined the faculty at Harvard Law, becoming dean four years later.

At the time, the school was in a rut, in part because of ideological conflicts among faculty, and Kagan was credited with reaching out to all camps, hiring a diverse mix of new teachers, and even improving physical conditions. By 2007, she was a finalist to become the president of the university, a position won by Drew Gilpin Faust. 

Instead, Kagan moved back to Washington when, in 2009, President Barack Obama chose her to be solicitor general, the official who represents the U.S. government before the Supreme Court. There, her first case was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (she lost).

When Justice John Paul Stevens announced his SCOTUS retirement in April 2010, Obama nominated Kagan to replace him. Considering the partisan nature of the Senate, her confirmation went smoothly, with the approval of the Judiciary Committee coming on July 20, and approval of the full Senate, 63-37, two weeks later, on August 5. She was sworn in a private ceremony on August 7, 2010.

Today, when Kagan, who is unmarried, attends shul, it’s at Washington, D.C.’s Conservative Adas Israel congregation.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen