Jewish feminists celebrate day the earth shook 25 years ago

NEW YORK — Twenty-five years after 500 Jewish women came together at the first national conference focused on their issues, a smaller group gathered last month to pat themselves on the back.

"The impact of the first conference was seismic. I mean, the earth shook," said Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

Pogrebin was one of about 85 women who met in late February to mark that pivotal event in the history of women in Judaism.

Pogrebin, one of the few at the event who didn't attend the 1973 gathering, said it took her years after the first conference to discover her Jewish feminism.

"I think that the stamps that the organizers have left on the community set a tone of respect, beginning from a place of knowledge and spiritual commitment, rather than on trashing Judaism," said Pogrebin, a co-founder of Ms. magazine.

"We don't want to destroy, we want to be included. We want to be given our dignity as Jewish women."

The conference in 1973 included sessions on: "Jewish Women in Political Life" led by then-lawmakers Bella Abzug and Elizabeth Holtzman; "Women and Spiritual Judaism"; "Women in Israel: Myth and Reality"; "Women in Jewish Education" and "Jewish Women and Halachah."

"Our goal was to begin a Jewish feminist movement," said Doris Gold, who at the time of the 1973 conference was a coordinator for the National Organization for Women.

"This never actually happened," she said, meaning that nothing as institutional as NOW has emerged for Jewish women. "But what did happen is that the 1973 event stimulated an activist spirit among the women who attended, who brought their energies to their various Jewish programs."

Feminist ideas began to enter Jewish discourse. Indeed, there has been loads of talk and tons of print.

The 25th-anniversary event, held at Congregation Habonim in Manhattan, was decorated with numerous published works and other signs of accomplishments of the first conference veterans.

The morning session focused on memories of the first conference. The afternoon session was titled "The Future Agenda."

Authors of the most influential books on Jewish women's issues shared the room.

"Women's history tends to become forgotten, marginalized, or trivialized. We wanted to make sure that this would not happen" with the first conference, said Aviva Cantor, organizer of the event and author of "Jewish Women, Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life," "The Egalitarian Haggadah" and editor of the "Bibliography on the Jewish Woman: 1900-1985."

Blu Greenberg, who attended both conferences and was a prime organizer of last month's Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, said that in 1973, she agreed with the guest rabbis who opposed female rabbinic ordination.

But today she cites the achievement of women's ordination in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements as the biggest gain since that time. And she set new goals.

"I think that right now exists the most learned generation of Jewish women in Jewish history," Greenberg said. "This community of learned women will power the engine of ordination in Orthodoxy, because knowledge is the source of leadership and authority in Judaism."