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Jewish Feminists Recall when the ‘earth Shook’

It’s been 25 years since the passionate movements of the 1960s inspired 500 Jewish women to come together for the first national Jewish women’s conference.

“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 last week to mark that pivotal event in the history of women in Judaism.

Pogrebin, one of the few at Sunday’s event who didn’t attend the 1973 gathering, said she discovered her Jewish feminism only years after that first conference.

“It got all women from all sects to think about their roles in loving and critical ways,” said Pogrebin, a 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.”

“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.”

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, “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. As Pogrebin put it: “We have to talk about things, before action can take place.”

Indeed, there has been lots of talk and even print.

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

The morning session focused on memories of the 25th conference and 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 and leader of this month’s Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, said that in 1973, she agreed with the guest rabbis who opposed female rabbinic ordination. But now cites the achievement of women’s ordination in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist denominations as the biggest gain since that time. And she sets 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.”

In addition to affecting modern Orthodoxy and the liberal streams, feminism has penetrated even the most traditional streams of Judaism.

At the same time that the big names in Jewish feminism were meeting on Sunday, there was another conference for Jewish women going on in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

“The feminist movements are a sign of the time of Moshiach,” Miriam Greenberg said to a group of Lubavitch women, referring to the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Schneerson’s unusual declaration that because women play an essential role in bringing the Messiah, they should be admired by the entire community.

People, she said, “are finally recognizing women’s extraordinary, spiritual role in Judaism.”

She is not talking about female rabbis, of course. Her issues are quite different.

But they share one common goal: to obtain respect and spiritual growth within their respective Jewish worlds.

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