Jewish and feminist — a dual role

Since the early struggles for women's rights, when Jews such as Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan made national news, Jewish women have claimed their place at the forefront of the feminist movement. Their role has been a dual one, campaigning for their rights as both Jews and as women.

At times, the two goals were not compatible, particularly when concerns about Israel set them apart from other feminists and created a separate agenda.

At the first U.N. Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975, for example, Jewish women flexed their political muscle against the "Zionism equals racism" posture that became a resolution to the U.N. charter. At subsequent conferences in Copenhagen and Nairobi, they lobbied to have the slogan removed.

Their efforts and perseverance earned them the chance to widen their scope beyond Israel at next month's fourth annual U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing, where they will listen and learn about violations of women's and human rights around the world.

Even while broadening their orbit, Jewish women attending the conference remain acutely aware that they participate not just as feminists but as Jewish feminists.

It's a noteworthy difference.

Women who are involved in Judaism have additional goals. Besides broad concerns about voting, employment, education and pay equity, they also are focused on Israeli issues, ritual, tradition and funding for social programs in the Jewish community.

They are dealing with issues of the status of women in Israel, in synagogue life, and in the structure of Jewish federations and other organizations.

Meanwhile, the face of Jewish feminism has aged. Its lines and strands of gray make the portrait richer. Cottin-Pogrebin's glasses and Abzug's hats remain as symbols. And Orthodox women and lesbians alike have stepped forward to claim their rightful place in a collective history.

The early Jewish feminist leaders named the problems and coined the terms. The challenge for the next generation is developing a cadre of activists who will bring the work of Jewish sisterhood into the 21st century.