Gentle Lilith readers, it’s been a year. When I think of Omicron (and now RSV), the fall of Roe, the frightening normalization of antisemitism, book bans across the land, and Israel’s political swerve to the hard right, I’m tempted to write “the oys have it” and leave it at that.
But as always, Jewish feminist joy and resistance are also part of the story. In that spirit, I offer my annual seven Jewish feminist highlights (seven being the number associated with creation and blessing in the Jewish tradition).
1. Jewish feminists and the organizations that represent them, in particular The National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW), sprang into action after the Dobbs decision overturned Roe. In partnership with the National Abortion Federation, NCJW started the Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. The fund supports a national hotline, the costs of traveling across state lines in order to get access to abortion services, and the costs of abortion procedures.
NCJW continually presses the point that abortion access is a religious freedom issue. As Sheila Katz, CEO of NCJW, wrote, “Abortion bans place greater value on the life of the fetus than on the pregnant person, a violation of Jewish law and tradition and of American religious liberty.” NCJW also partnered with the Jewish Women’s Archive on a reproductive rights storytelling project in order to privilege the perspectives of pregnant people and preserve their history.
2. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the Scholar-in-Residence for NCJW, and she has been one of the organization’s key voices on reproductive rights. She is also a prolific writer and, this year, published On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World. Rather than prioritizing forgiveness, Ruttenberg compellingly argues that victim-centered Jewish ideas about repentance, derived from Maimonides, can help heal the harm done by individuals, institutions, and nations. This book is a social justice manual for Jews and non-Jews alike.
3. Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, a historic moment celebrated by Jewish feminists. The hearings were made even sweeter for the Lilith crowd when Brown Jackson talked about the Black-Jewish alliance that founded Georgetown Day School in 1945; her children attend that school and she serves on its board. Brown Jackson took Ted Cruz’s baiting question about social justice as an opportunity to talk about Black and Jewish families joining together to resist legally mandated educational segregation.
Such alliances were part of the Justice’s own educational experiences. Her high school Jewish debate coach, Fran Berger, was an important early influence. “Under the tutelage of an extraordinary woman named Fran Berger who was my coach and my mentor, I learned how to reason and how to write and I gained the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to develop at an early age.” Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson reminds us yet again that we need to all be in it together, and that individuals who care can change the world.
4. 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination. On June 3, 1972, Priesand became the first woman to join the rabbinate after completing her training at Cincinnati’s HUC-JIR, one of the Reform Movement’s rabbinical seminaries. It would take the Conservative movement another 13 years to ordain its first woman rabbi, Amy Eilberg.
Jewish women of a certain age likely remember the first time they saw a woman leading services from the bima. We celebrate that many young women now take for granted women’s full leadership in Jewish ritual life.
The picture book Sally Opened Doors: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi was released as part of the anniversary celebrations and to ensure that Jewish feminist history goes from generation to generation. The author, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, is herself a rabbinical shero; in 1974, she was the first women to be ordained by the Reconstructionist movement. May these rabbinical pioneers soon be joined by an Orthodox counterpart!
5. At the end of March, Deborah Lipstadt, eminent Holocaust historian, was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. President Biden nominated her for this position in July 2021, but her confirmation vote was delayed for months.
Her illustrious career as an academic and public intellectual should have made her appointment a slam dunk (among her many accomplishments, she successfully beat Holocaust denier David Irving in a British libel case). However, Ron Johnson, Republican Senator from Wisconsin and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, tried to waylay this nomination.
Lipstadt’s crime: she tweeted her clear-sighted dismay at his racist defense of those who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. His grudge led to trumped up charges of partisanship unbecoming an ambassador. Anyone who has read Lipstadt’s Antisemitism: Here and Now can only guffaw; when it comes to antisemitism, her criticism crosses the aisle. Her confirmation was ultimately a defeat for “snowflake” Republicans and a victory for a mouthy Jewish woman who takes antisemitism and anti-Black racism seriously.
6. This year, the Yeshiva University Pride Alliance continued to strive for recognition and demonstrated that it’s more committed to chesed (lovingkindness) and menschlichkeit than the institution it’s been forced to sue. In 2021, as a “last resort,” members of the YU Pride Alliance took their university to court to gain official recognition as a student club. In September 2022, the Supreme Court ordered YU to recognize the Pride Alliance. Rather than do so, the university chose to end all student activities for a time.
The Pride Alliance responded to this seemingly manipulative attempt to divide and conquer the student body by agreeing not to insist on the court-ordered recognition until the legal battle, with its appeal processes, fully played itself out. Student activities resumed, and then YU had the chutzpah to create an “alternative” club for “LGBTQ students striving to live authentic Torah lives.”
YU claims that the new club was created with input from former and current LGBTQ students; however, the Pride Alliance challenged the truthfulness of that claim, and YU wasn’t forthcoming with information about the club or about its so-called enhanced resources for LGBTQ students. Yasher koach (may you have strength) to the YU Pride Alliance members who refused to sell out their authentic queer Torah souls and also wouldn’t let their classmates’ clubs be held as ransom.
7. A Broadway revival of Funny Girl arrived on Broadway this year, based on the life and loves of Jewish actress/comedian Fanny Brice. Of course, Barbra “Babs” Streisand played Fanny in the original 1964 Broadway production and in the 1968 film.
Just as Babs identified strongly with Fanny’s ambition, talent, chutzpah, and insecurities, so did Beanie Feldstein, who was initially cast as Fanny and posted on Instagram that “I went to my third birthday party dressed as Fanny Brice so sometimes dreams actually come true.”
Offstage drama resulted in Feldstein being replaced by Lea Michele, who also had always dreamed of playing Brice. However, between Feldstein’s departure in June and Michele’s arrival in September, Feldstein’s standby Julie Benko played the part. Unlike Feldstein and Michele, Benko was not obsessed with Brice or Funny Girl prior to her casting: “I didn’t grow up with Funny Girl. I know that’s insane for a Jewish musical theater girl.” However, Benko does feel a kinship with Fanny: “Fanny was pretty, but she was Jewish. She just didn’t fit the ideal. . . We could be cousins.” L’dor v’dor—from generation to generation!
Photograph of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand by Joan Roth, published in the Lilith Spring 2022 Issue.