Reprinted with permission from
This Week in History
, a project of the
Jewish Women’s Archive
On June 29, 1922, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s professional organization, meeting at a in Cape May, N.J., debated a resolution declaring that “women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination [as rabbis].” After tabling the resolution overnight, the Conference voted 56 to 11 on June 30, to affirm in principle the right of women to become rabbis. The debate, notable for its invitation to the women present (mainly rabbis’ wives) to participate in the discussion, may have been successful in changing some minds. The New York Times reported on the morning of June 29 that a majority of conference attendees were opposed to the resolution, but on June 30 the same newspaper reported that “the sentiment [was] seemingly largely in favor of the entry of women.”
The Cape May resolution was inspired indirectly by the ratification of the 19th amendment, in 1920, and directly by Martha Neumark, a 17-year-old student at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, who, that same year, asked to be assigned, like her male rabbinical school classmates, to a high holiday student pulpit. Her request raised the possibility that Neumark, daughter of a HUC faculty member, might ultimately present herself as a candidate for ordination.
When the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote, it aroused an expectation among at least some Americans that all barriers to women’s full equality in American society would subsequently fall. Reform Judaism, which had already instituted many changes meant to bring Judaism into accord with the spirit of the times and which had long advocated women’s equality, might have been expected to drop barriers to women’s full participation. The rabbis’ resolution, in fact, noted the “revolution” in the status of contemporary women and explained the vote as an acknowledgment of the “enrichment and enlargement of congregational life” which had grown out of women’s contributions.
Despite the CCAR resolution, Neumark was never ordained. The College’s governing board voted in February 1923 to bar female ordination, indicating that there did not seem to be any practical need for such a step. Neumark eventually withdrew from HUC (having completed 7½ years of the 9 year curriculum). Although other women would study at HUC over the years, some completing the rabbinical curriculum and many earning other degrees, no woman in the United States would be ordained as a rabbi until 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first, 50 years after the CCAR first resolved to make it possible.