Jewish Women Changing America

If, as historian Paula Hyman claims, there are “feminist clicks”—moments when, as a feminist woman in society, one notices one’s own invisibility—then there were certainly moments of “unclick” at the recent Jewish Women Changing America conference at Barnard College in New York, moments that provided a sense of community for American Jewish women interested in American Jewish women.

Several overarching themes colored the discussion of this two-day event: how to relate to the larger community, how to work across generational divides, how the feminist Jewish community should relate to increasing political polarization over Israel, and what should be the role of feminism in an interdenominational (or, as panelist and Conservative rabbinical student Danya Ruttenberg put it, “post-denominational”) Jewish world.

A session on “Changing Judaism” explored feminism through presenters representing all four main denominations of Judaism. The panelists—Reform Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Rabbi Judith Hauptman, Talmud professor at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, Danya Ruttenberg, Professors Norma Joseph and Lori Lefkowitz and moderator Judith Plaskow—managed to disagree with one another respectfully, mostly about the role and limits of halakha, while certain common sentiments emerged. These included repeated affirmations that the feminist changes still to come need to be accomplished in a positive way—because feminist change is itself inherently positive. Several specific agendas included the desire of Lori Lefkowitz of Kolot, the Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies at the Reconstructioniust Rabbinical College and one of the driving forces behind, to make Jewish ritual more accessible, and Nonna Joseph’s push for legal rights of agunot (women whose husbands will not give them a religious divorce). All the panelists agreed to avoid what Joseph referred to as”us-versus-themism,” and articulated a willingness to reach across denominationalism.

The conference, presented by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, at the IngeborgTamara and Yonina Rennert Women in Judaism Forum, failed only one respect: its title. The event did not explore Jewish women’s effects upon the larger American culture. A more accurate description would have been” Jewish Women Changing Jewish America.”