“Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism”

By Karla Goldman, Harvard University Press

Most Jewish women in the United States have come a long way from the screened-off balconies that were standard features of traditional synagogues.

Chronicling the growing participation of women in American synagogue life from Colonial times through the turn of the twentieth century, Goldman traces the evolution of more “open” women’s galleries, “family” pews, mixed gender choirs, synagogue sisterhoods, women’s admittance to congregational membership and boards, and their synagogue related charitable activities.

Each of these steps along the road to more nearly equal gender roles in Judaism was controversial. Those proposing mixed seating and choirs were eager to demonstrate their commitment to women’s rights, openness to secular culture and concern with “decorum,” a style of worship more in keeping with that of their Protestant neighbors.

On the other hand, traditionalists, while appreciating women’s contributions to Jewish religious life, argued that such innovations were against Jewish law or threatened traditional Judaism. Then, as now, women’s issues often occupied center stage in deliberations over the future direction of American Judaism.

As the author makes clear, the campaign for greater women’s equality in synagogue life was inextricably linked to Jews’ struggle for acculturation and acceptance in the larger American society. In advocating such reforms as mixed seating, upwardly mobile Jews sought middle class respectability in a country where women regularly attended church services. Echoing nineteenth century notions regarding women’s domestic virtues and spiritual nature, rabbis encouraged women to both participate more actively in synagogue life and maintain traditional Jewish practices within the home.

Karla Goldman’s insightful analysis is based on a wide variety of sources (including synagogue archival documents and the Anglo-Jewish press), and draws upon architectural and American church history in valuable ways. She explores many topics that have not been treated adequately elsewhere, such as the establishment of mikvaot [ritual baths] in early American Jewish communities. A concise epilogue sets more recent feminist accomplishments, such as women’s access to the study of traditional texts and the ordination of women rabbis, within their historical context.  

Reena Sigman Friedman is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish History at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and is a Contributing Editor of LILITH.