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Life-styles Are Being Changed by Jewish Feminist Movement

April 22, 1975
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The feminist movement is changing the style of Sabbath and holiday services among American Jewish college students as an increasing number of women take on roles and ritual traditionally reserved for the male, B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundations reported yesterday. At campus services, it is not uncommon for a woman to be counted in the minyan, serve as cantor, read from the Torah or chant the Haftorah, and otherwise assert an equality in religious practices, a Hillel survey of its campus installations disclosed.

Among the more militant innovators, Jewish coeds at Boston and Brown Universities exclude males from their all-feminine Sabbath service. The service itself is patterned on Orthodox ritual, At Brown, two of the students revised the siddur with new verses and translations which “speak to us as women.” Their use of a female pronoun for the deity, they said, was to emphasize that “there are distinctly female aspects of God that men and women should consider.” Similarly, a Haggadah rewritten to cite the role of women in the Exodus was used last month by 75 University of Pennsylvania coeds for their women-only seder.

The survey found many religion-minded feminists on campus actively expressing dissatisfaction with the status of women in many matters of Jewish law. The growing trend toward egalitarian worship, the survey noted, began about 10 years ago at the University of Chicago and is now prevalent on campuses across the country. It is strongest at New England colleges, less pronounced in the south.


Rabbi Norman Frimer, Hillel’s national director, described the trend as a “unique combination of radicalism and traditionalism.” An Orthodox adherent, Rabbi Frimer said that while he personally found many of the innovations theologically unacceptable, they were “sociologically affirmative” in terms of strengthening the Jewish community. The prodding by women, he said, “is not only a search for feminism and equality but equally an aspect of their quest to experience and express a total Jewishness.”

Members of Hillel’s national commission, at their annual meeting here, agreed that the use of Hillel facilities for such departures from custom was appropriate, conforming to B’nai B’rith’s policy of “encouragement to all of the religious options in Judaism.” The survey noted that in the past Jewish women lacked “adequate training” to assume leadership roles in worship, a circumstance that has since changed. At Brandeis University and other schools, women’s groups have organized to teach other women how to read from the Torah and perform other religious roles.

Rabbi Albert Axelrad, Hillel director at Brandeis, reported that the egalitarian Sabbath services on his campus are also drawing families from nearby communities. At the University of Chicago, said Rabbi Daniel I. Leifer, the shared roles for men and women are taken for granted, The service is Conservative-oriented and “heavy on Hebrew.” At UCLA, women are involved as teachers, preparing other women for a belated Bat Mitzvah.

Rabbi Joseph A, Polak, Hillel director at Boston University, strongly endorses the feminine thrust on his campus, He describes its exclusive-for-women congregation as an Americanization of the “viebershul” (wives’ synagogue) of 18th and 19th Century Europe.

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