Jewish Women in Focus

Celebrating women's history, one month at a time.

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One of the significant founding moments in contemporary challenges to women's traditional roles within Judaism occurred March 14, 1972, a few months before the ordination of the first woman rabbi within the Reform movement. On that day, a group of young female activists within the Conservative movement, calling themselves "Ezrat Nashim," issued a call for change to a convention of Conservative rabbis. They demanded recognition of women's religious equality, including counting women in the quorum required for public prayer and admitting women to the movement's rabbinical and cantorial schools.

With the advent of women rabbis, and as feminism advanced the call for women's equality within American society, expressions of women's claim on public Jewish ritual accelerated. On March 14, 1977, The New York Times reported on the profusion of naming-ritual ceremonies for baby girls, intended to complement the celebration that accompanies the circumcision of baby boys.

The publishing of significant books--such as E. M. Broner's "The Telling" on March 1, 1993, and Lynn Gottlieb's "She Who Dwells Within" on March 3, 1995--helped capture the feminist ferment that redefined American Judaism throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The impact of these efforts was signaled when Rachel Adler won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought on March 11, 1999, for her challenging book "Engendering Judaism," which struggled with traditional texts to derive a feminist Jewish practice that could honor both the past and present.

The transformations that have grown from the introduction of female Jewish spiritual leadership found definitive symbolic and institutional expression in the election of Rabbi Janet Marder as president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis on March 26, 2003. Marder thus became the first woman to lead a major rabbinical organization or a major co-ed Jewish religious organization.

This much abbreviated trip through March--even when omitting mention of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg's birthday (March 15, 1933) or the more somber date of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (March 25, 1911) or how the work of historian Gerda Lerner led to the inauguration of National Women's History Week on March 2, 1980--begins to suggest the richness of the last 351 years of American Jewish experience. Such a journey reminds us of how a textured and meaningful group history is constructed day by day and person by person.

Our embrace of enriching perspectives on the past never should be limited to one day, week or month of the year. But when we use commemorative opportunities to focus on history in new ways, we may find a past that turns out to be much more diverse, engaging and challenging than we ever would have suspected.

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Karla Goldman

Karla Goldman, historian in residence at the Jewish Women's Archive and editor of its online series This Week in History, is the author of Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (Harvard University Press, 2000).