Lilith editors beat:from sex abuse to seders

When the family of much-beloved Renewal Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach recently tried to get a New York City block renamed in his honor, opponents relied upon a magazine article to help prove why he should not be given this honor.

That article, from the Jewish feminist magazine Lilith, alleged that Carlebach had sexually abused a number of young women — most of them from Berkeley.

In response, Carlebach’s family decided they did not want those charges to be revived, and dropped their request.

“That piece on Carlebach was the first looking at abusive behavior by rabbis, long before the scandals that followed,” Susan Weidman Schneider, editor-in-chief of Lilith, said of the 1998 article. “We took a lot of flack for that.

“We could do it first because we believed the testimonies we heard, and we didn’t back down, even when we began receiving threats of all kinds at the office,” she said last week in a telephone interview from her office in New York. “People put their faith in us to give them a voice.”

Schneider, the founder and editor of a magazine that has enjoyed far wider influence than its 10,000 circulation would suggest, will speak on Tuesday, Oct. 26, at Stanford University. Her talk, on Jewish feminism in the 2004 election, is sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Collective of Stanford.

The Carlebach piece is included in a file Schneider keeps, called “Lilith Did It First,” containing stories that had not yet appeared elsewhere. Another in the file comes from an issue that sold out completely — on how women feel about their “Jewish” hair.

It was a very different time when Schneider founded Lilith in 1976.

The Reform movement had only begun ordaining women as rabbis four years earlier, and the Conservative movement would not take this historic step until almost a decade later.

“Now, of course, there are some years where there are even more women [ordained] than men,” said Schneider.

And while Lilith still runs stories about women in the rabbinate, the nature of that coverage has changed.

Now, it’s “why women rabbis aren’t getting as big pulpits, or are choosing not to go into congregational life, or how has congregational life changed as more women are on the bimah.”

Women’s participation in Jewish life has changed a great deal, as well. Schneider said that in the 1970s, the first women’s seders were considered a sort of “underground” event, attended by invitation only. Now, many synagogues and Jewish community centers hold them, and they take place around the world.

Jewish women and motherhood is another topic that has graced many a Lilith cover. One early article had Jewish women responding to the biblical imperative to be fruitful and multiply. Another covered career women, and how having children impacted their ability to climb the corporate ladder. Later articles dealing with motherhood have covered single mothers by choice, and one called “sex and shame in a different era,” interviewing Jewish women who either had babies out of wedlock or underwent abortions when it was still illegal.

A more recent article about motherhood dealt with the market for Jewish eggs, as many Jewish women who put off childbearing find themselves dealing with infertility.

Schneider said the magazine takes pride in showing the diversity of Jewish women’s experiences, meaning “the people who didn’t grow up in a typical Ashkenazi second-generation family.”

Looking back, she said Jewish women’s organizations have changed drastically over the past few decades, as they used to be woefully out of touch with the needs of their constituents and unwilling to take a stand on many issues that were relevant to women.

Another big change, she said, is that women have become a greater economic power.

“Now we have Jewish women’s philanthropy as our beat. We’ve written a lot about how Jewish women — both individuals and foundations — are changing the world with their dollars. Those are very exciting stories to do, as women are becoming more powerful in their own right, not only with spousal money or inherited money, but money they’ve earned themselves.”

Susan Weidman Schneider will speak at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26, at the Tresidder Oak West Room on the Stanford University campus.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."