American Jewish Feminism: Beginnings

Contemporary Jewish feminism has made its impact on all of the major denominations of Jewish life.

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In separate meetings with rabbis and their wives, the women of Ezrat Nashim issued a "Call for Change" that put forward the early agenda of Jewish feminism. That agenda stressed the "equal access" of women and men to public roles of status and honor     

in the Jewish community. It focused on eliminating the subordination of women in Judaism by equalizing their rights in marriage and divorce laws, women's interpretations of Jewish texts, counting them in the minyan [the quorum necessary for communal prayer], and enabling them to assume positions of leadership in the synagogue as rabbis and cantors. In recognition of the fact that the secondary status of women in Jewish law rested on their exemp­tion from certain mitzvot [commandments], the state­ment called for women to be obligated to perform all mitzvot, as were men. Ezrat Nashim caught the eye of the New York press, which widely disseminated the demands of Jewish feminism.

Jewish feminism found a receptive audience. In 1973, secular and religious Jewish feminists, under the auspices of the North American Jewish Students' Network, convened a national conference in New York City that attracted more than five hundred par­ticipants. A similarly vibrant conference the following year led to the formation of a short‑lived Jewish femi­nist organization. Although Jewish feminists did not succeed in establishing a comprehensive organization, they were confident that they spoke for large numbers of women (and some men) within the American Jew­ish community.

Bringing Jewish Feminism to the Jewish Community

Feminists used a number of strategies to bring the issue of gender equality before the Jewish community. Feminist speakers presented their arguments from the pulpit in lilith magazinecountless synagogues and participated in lively debates in Jewish community centers and local and national meetings of Jewish women's organizations.

Jewish feminists also brought their message to a wider public through the written word. Activists from Ezrat Nashim and the North American Jewish Students Network published a special issue of Response magazine, dedicated to Jewish feminism, in 1973. With Elizabeth Koltun as editor, a revised and expanded version, entitled­ The Jewish Woman:

New Perspectives, appeared in 1976. That year, Lilith, a Jewish feminist magazine, was established by Susan Weidman Schneider and Aviva Cantor; Susan Weidman Schneider has served as its editor since that time. Lilith has combined news of interest to Jewish women with articles bringing the latest Jewish feminist research in a popular form to a lay audience along with reviews of new publications.

Under the aegis of Ezrat Nashim, Toby Reifman, one of Lilith’s members, edited and distributed a pamphlet containing baby-naming ceremonies for girls. The very lack of formal Jewish feminist organizational structures allowed for grass-root efforts across the country. In 1977, for example, Irene Fine of San Diego, California, established the Women’s Institute for Continuing Jewish Education. Not only does it regularly bring speaker and artists to southern California, it has also published collections of Jewish women’s interpretations of Jewish texts as well as women’ rituals.

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Dr. Paula Hyman

Dr. Paula Hyman is Lucy Moses Professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale University. Among her published works are Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History (University of Washington Press)and The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press).