Two decades of progress: Feminists alter Jewish life but envision long fight for equal rights

More than two decades after planting its first seeds, Jewish feminism has transformed Jewish life. And women — especially in the liberal movements — have gained access to virtually every sphere of religious life.

There has been, in fact, more success in the religious realm than the communal, say Jewish feminists. But veteran activists in Jewish organizations point to changes there, too, including the funding of causes more reflective of women's needs.

"With women so visible on the bimah, there is a real understanding that women can go where they want to go," says Francine Klagsbrun, an author who championed women's ordination in the Conservative movement.

The most dramatic changes have been in religious life. In the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements, women have become rabbis and cantors serving in pulpits, hospitals, seminaries. In a more limited way, they have also had a hand in making policy as administrators and lay leaders of their movements.

Feminism's impact reaches far beyond issues of access. It has led to explorations of the nature of spirituality, the nature of God, theology, prayer and ritual.

Even in the most stringent segments of the Orthodox community, women are devoting more of their energy to the serious study of Torah and becoming an increasingly learned constituency.

Liturgy in all the non-Orthodox movements has changed as a result of women's participation. The stories of pivotal women in Jewish history are being unearthed. Female voices — largely ignored in classical Jewish literature — are now being woven into the cloth that makes up the whole of Jewish experience.

Today's reality contrasts starkly to 1973, when organizers of the first national feminist conference included a session on women and Jewish law but all of the rabbis who spoke were male.

Two decades later, most of the 221 female Reform rabbis and 55 female Reconstructionist rabbis say that they are accepted as rabbis, not "women" rabbis. Both these movements have been ordaining women since the early 1970s.

"For 10 years it was really oppressive to deal with the novelty. It's very nice to have it be normalized," says Rabbi Susan Schnur, editor of Lilith magazine, which last fall celebrated its 18th birthday.

Schnur was the fourth woman to be ordained by the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College, and is the founding rabbi of an independent congregation in Princeton, N.J.

Despite advances, many challenges remain. In each of the Reform movement's three branches — congregational, rabbinic and seminary — the upper echelon of leadership is exclusively male.

But according to Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, co-coordinator of the Women's Rabbinic Network, "almost all new members of the board of the Central Conference of American Rabbis [the Reform movement's rabbinic arm] are women. There has been a very conscious and concerted effort to be more inclusive."

Feminist influence is more visible in the Reconstructionist movement, where a comparatively new series of prayerbooks, titled Kol HaNeshama, has integrated feminist approaches to addressing God.

The Conservative movement, which approved the ordination of women in 1983, is having a difficult time negotiating the tensions inherent in being a pluralistic movement with both nonegalitarian and egalitarian congregations and leaders.

"There are probably hundreds of synagogues within the Conservative movement struggling with women's rights," says Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, who teaches theology at Jewish Theological Seminary and is editor of the publication Sh'ma.

"You can't just admit women and say we're done. We're at the infant stage of dealing with this."

One of the unexpected outcomes of Jewish feminism's impact on religious matters has been a cross-denominational bond on matters of common concern, like Women of the Wall.

The controversial group has gathered for Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem since 1989. Representing all denominations, they gather to pray with a Torah, some wearing tallitot. They have been physically attacked by ultra-religious male worshippers.

After lengthy negotiations with the ministry of religion and the rabbi in charge of the Wall, Meir Yehuda Getz, the women were told to conform to the accepted norms: no tallitot or Sefer Torah, and they must keep their voices low. But even after following these guidelines, they have been attacked and now pray with a Sefer Torah away from the Wall.

The women sued the government of Israel for failing to protect them, and the Israeli Supreme Court's verdict required a government commission to recommend a resolution. The commission missed its spring deadline, and the group has again asked the court for immediate remedy.

The movement inspiring the Women of the Wall was born out of the convergence of two 1960s trends: contemporary feminism and an emerging ethnic consciousness.

"When we woke up in the '60s and '70s to our own status as women, we were natural fighters, just like Jews in the civil rights movement," says Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founder of Ms. magazine, author and activist in left-wing Jewish politics.

Many of the founding mothers of feminism — Pogrebin, Betty Friedan, Phyllis Chesler and Bella Abzug — are Jewish. Gloria Steinem has a Jewish father. They shaped a movement that at first had no explicit ethnic or religious component.

The first feminist Jewish women's group began meeting on Manhattan's Upper West Side in 1971, and by the following year had developed an agenda: to fight for women's access to all areas of Jewish life.

In 1972, a dozen Ezrat Nashim (Women's Help) members, including Arlene Agus, went to the annual convention of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly and presented a list of demands for women's equality in Jewish law.

"We were not warmly welcomed," recalls Agus. But it was the "first step in a process that 11 years later led to the ordination of Conservative women."

The first national feminist conference was held in February 1973 in a Manhattan hotel, and the next a year later.

"We didn't want to change Judaism, but just get a bigger piece of it," says Agus. "The goal has changed. Equality now seems like a very small part of our aspirations."

Lilith came out of those discussions. Published out of tiny, book-filled offices in midtown Manhattan, the magazine is named after the first woman created by God, a woman, who, according to rabbinic sources, demanded equality with Adam.

Over its history of almost two decades, the magazine has devoted its pages to topics not often addressed in other Jewish publications: rituals reflecting women's experiences, the insidiousness of the Jewish American Princess stereotype, the philanthropic power of Jewish women, and women's roles in Jewish organizations.

Lilith's executive editor, Susan Weidman Schneider, says the magazine aimed to provide a feminist voice for Jewish women who were feeling excluded by patriarchal Judaism, and to provide a Jewish voice in general women's circles.

Both efforts have succeeded, says Schneider. "Today we hear less and less urging to walk away from the patriarchal system, that `Judaism killed the goddess,' and less scapegoating of Judaism" by feminists in spiritual circles.

But the battle for inclusion is far from over. Twenty-two years after Jacqueline Levine stood up at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations and decried the lack of women in the senior ranks of federation leadership, there are still few women at the top.

"The truth is that the federation system is a male-dominant culture," says Victoria Agron, assistant vice president at the United Jewish Appeal. "They [the male leadership] don't want us to be too `out there' because it means confrontation, and the federation system, which sees itself as a healing system, doesn't like that tension."

Women must agitate more aggressively to change Jewish organizations, says Naomi Levine, who served as national executive director of the American Jewish Congress from 1971 through '78.

She was the first and only woman who has ever been the top professional at a major Jewish group that is not specifically a women's organization, and is now senior vice president for external affairs at New York University.

"Women in the corporate world use lawsuits. Any discrimination on basis of sex is a violation of law but Jewish women have not gone to their state commissions against discrimination," she says.

"I don't know any women who reduce their contributions because a Jewish organization doesn't treat women fairly. Women have to use whatever instruments are available to them to make their case."

Shoshana Cardin, a prominent lay leader who has chaired five Jewish organizations (currently United Israel Appeal and CLAL: the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership), adds:

"Women have not been taught or acculturated to challenge, and we're relatively new at it. Women are beginning to learn that the risk is sometimes worth the effort — even if they don't succeed — because others will succeed after them."