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Jewish Feminism in the ’90s: Two Decades After Planting Seeds, Jewish Feminism Transforms Community

More than two decades after planting its first seeds, Jewish feminism has transformed Jewish life.

What began as the demand by women for access to positions of power in the organized American Jewish world has evolved into a movement that has permeated all aspects of Jewish communal and religious life.

Not only are women changing Jewish tradition by bringing their voices and experiences to it, but they are becoming deeply connected to their Jewishness, threading it through their lives in a more personal, intimate way than some felt was possible before the advent of feminism.

There has been 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.

Those involved in the movement are pausing now to reflect on the accomplishments of Jewish women as Lilith, the flagship publication of Jewish feminism, celebrates its 18th anniversary.

The coming-of-age of the magazine means that the movement has been around long enough to have witnessed and influenced an entire generation of young Jews.

Jewish feminism was born out of the convergence of two 1960s trends: contemporary feminism and an emerging ethnic consciousness.

Many of contemporary feminism’s founder – Betty Friedan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Phyllis Chesler and Bella Abzug – are Jewish. Gloria Steinem has a Jewish father.

The reason for such a high level of Jewish involvement is that “a sense of justice is mother’s milk for us” as Jews, said Pogrebin, a founder of Ms. magazine, an author and activist in left-wing Jewish politics.

“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 movements,” she said.

The founding mothers of feminism shaped a movement which at first had no explicit ethnic or religious component, and was based on their experiences as mostly white, middle-class women.

But in the late 1960s and early 1970s as ethnic identity became part of the American vernacular, two important trends emerged that helped shape what became a more specifically Jewish feminism.

The ethnic consciousness taking root in the black community was also transforming Jewish women, making them aware of their own ethnic and religious heritage.

But Jewish women found that their perspectives as Jews were not welcomed in the women’s movement and encountered explicit anti-Semitism.

Just as Jewish of both genders have experienced alienation throughout history, Jewish feminists found themselves without a place that was truly their own: The women’s movement was not fully including them, and there was no place for them yet in the Jewish community.

“The general women’s movement tried to portray Jewish feminists as being very selfish. Jewish feminists were very beleaguered,” said Aviva Cantor, author of the forthcoming book, “Jewish Women/Jewish Men: The Legacy of Patriarchy in Jewish Life,” which is scheduled to be published next spring by Harper San Francisco.

And within the Jewish community, “anyone critical of policy was really lambasted. People felt they had to move slowly,” she said.

Jewish activists of the day belonged to abroad amalgamation of Jewish groups, mostly student-led, which were loosely organized under the rubric The Movement.

Organized under the auspices of the North American Jewish Students Network, The Movement included people who affiliated with havurot, Zionist groups, even the Jewish Defense League.

Some of the women who joined for the causes became feminists in the process.

Jewish women wanted to stay within Judaism and work for change rather than leave to seek new spiritual homes in religions more inclusive of women’s experience.

Ezrat Nashim (Women’s Help) was born out of that quest.

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 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,” recalled 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 second a year later.

Jewish women were beginning to think about what place they wanted to seek for themselves in the Jewish world.

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

Lilith magazine, designed to give an independent voice to Jewish women whose experiences received scant attention in other publications, came out of discussions held there.

Published out of tiny, book-filled offices in midtown Manhattan, the quarterly magazine serves as an advocate of Jewish women’s perspectives, a resource center and a link among Jewish women.

The magazine is named after the first woman created by God, a woman, who, according to rabbinic sources, demanded equality with Adam.

Over the past 18 years, 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 tiny staff fields dozens of calls and letters each week from women who are looking for information about starting a Rosh Chodesh group or are trying to find a feminist seder to attend.

Lilith’s founders had two goals, according to Executive Editor Susan Weidman Schneider: 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.

The effort on both fronts, said Schneider, has been successful.

“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, she said.

“Lilith is a real open door for unaffiliated Jewish women,” said Schneider. Before the magazine existed, “each woman thought she was along. Lilith helped eradicate some of the sense of isolation.”

The first United Nations conference on women, help in Mexico City in 1975, was a rude awakening for Jewish feminists.

The concept of equating Zionism with racism was introduced to the international community and easily passed as a resolution by the delegates to the conference. Later that year it was passed by the U.N.’s General Assembly.

The Mexico City experience “woke up a lot of non-identified Jews in the women’s movement that a whole other piece of their identity politics was being Jewish,” said Pogrebin.

In the years since then, a second generation of Jewish feminists has begun to mobilize.

These young Jewish women have grown up with an integrated identity of being both Jewish and feminist, rather than struggling to mesh the two.

They bring with them different experiences than the mothers of Jewish feminism and face different challenges.

Issues on their agenda include homophobia, interdating and intermarriage, according to Robin Beth Schaer, a founder of Sharsheret, a group of young Jewish feminists in New York.

“We often feel pushed aside (by other Jewish feminists) because older women don’t understand the problems we’ve had with multiculturalism,” said Schaer.

It is important that young Jewish feminists organize their own groups rather than participate in larger Jewish feminist gatherings, said Schaer.

“Before, we (went) to conferences or meetings organized by older women for younger women, and spent the whole time arguing with older women who kept telling us that things were out there for us,” said Schaer.

She added, “Instead of communicating with each other we ended up defending ourselves. We want to do this for ourselves.”

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