When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!