Jewish Women – Our Best Hope
Since 1937, when Jews constituted 3.7% of all Americans, our numbers have not increased, so that now we are only 1.8% of all Americans. This decline has led us to adopt several strategies which have insured our survival and maintained our influence upon American life.
One of these strategies, and perhaps the most important one is the ascendancy of Jewish women to leadership positions in Jewish communal life. This has had several great advantages for all of us. First, the entrance of Jewish women into the boards of directors of Jewish organizations and into the presidencies of some of our major organizations has doubled the number of Jews who can work for our cause and represent us. Second, the inclusion of women into the “drivers' seats” of Jewish life has added a female dimension to our ability to find solutions to our many problems which was simply not present when only men directed the fortunes of the Jewish community.
Third, we have been able to raise far more money than ever before because of the active participation of Jewish women in the fund raising effort. In part this is true because many Jewish women work in lucrative businesses and professions and can support Jewish causes in their own right. In addition, the same and other Jewish women have done a tremendous job in gathering contributions for our many needs.
Jewish women have also taken the lead in Jewish education including academic positions at some of our leading universities. Women are teachers and administrators of Jewish schools and other women are now rabbis in both the Conservative and Reform branch of Judaism. The first woman to be so ordained was Sally Priesand who became a rabbi in the Reform movement in 1972. Then, in 1983 women were first ordained at the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary. Since then women have also been accepted as cantors. This is of the greatest significance to our religious observance because our tradition teaches that the cantor is the Shaliach Zibbor or messenger of the congregation. The cantor is also known as the Baal Tefillah or Master of Prayer who represents the congregation before G’d.
In 1963, a Jewish woman, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique which contributed mightily to the liberation of all American women from the “problem that has no name” as Friedan called it. Three years later Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) thereby promoting women into all those areas which now benefit all of us, and particularly the Jewish community.
Some of the important consequences of the feminization of Judaism as been the massive introduction of the Bat Mitzvah allowing girls to attain religious maturity at age 12 or 13 with equal “pomp and circumstance” as was heretofore reserved only for boys. Although the first Bat Mitzvah ever conducted in the world took place in Iraq, the first American Bat Mitzvah was the Bat Mitzvah of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan’s daughter Judith in 1936. Rabbi Kaplan was the founder of the Reconstructionist movement.
Today, there are some Jewish women such as Rabbi Leah Novick, who work in areas no one else will undertake. Rabbi Novick serves rural Jews who otherwise have no connection to the Jewish community in California.
There are also some Jewish women who have rewritten the Haggada and introduced a feminist version of that ancient book. There is also a gay and lesbian synagogue in New York City whose rabbi is Sharon Kleinman.
None of this should really surprise us because Jewish women, contrary to common stereotypes, have always played an important role in our history. According to the important scholar Pieter van der Horst, “….throughout the diaspora there were opportunities for women to climb to high positions with honor and prestige and to play leading roles in Jewish communities.