Ezrat Nashim: Mothers of Invention and Revolution

Paula Hyman and Judith Hyman Rosenbaum. 

No better day than Mother’s Day to reunite the band of women who led the fight for equal rights for women in the Jewish religious world in the 1970s.

Nine of the early leaders of the germinal Jewish feminist group Ezrat Nashim (translated as “Help of Women,” the name for the women’s section in traditional synagogues) spoke at the Manhattan JCC this May, along with one daughter of the revolution.

A brief recap: In March 1972, fueled by the Vietnam War protests and the “click” of feminist consciousness, two carloads of women from the New York Havurah arrived uninvited at Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly at the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskills. Their call for halakhic change within Conservative Judaism made it into the assembly materials: that women be allowed individual memberships in synagogues, count in the minyan, be witnesses in Jewish law, initiate divorce, have equality with men in rabbinic and cantorial schools and in synagogues, assume professional leadership roles, and fulfill all mitzvot equally with men.

As Paula Hyman, now professor of Modern Jewish History at Yale, put it, “That notion of achieving anything you want came from the ‘60s, and we were children of the ‘60s. … We were the right people at the right time. What we were saying made sense.”

Change came relatively fast, with the Jewish Theological Seminary admitting the first women rabbinical students in 1984. And the women spurring the change have gone on to shape our world in many ways: Judith Plaskow, author of the landmark book Standing Again at Sinai (this time women get counted) now professor of religious studies, Manhattan College; Martha Ackelsberg, professor of government and women’s studies at Smith; Dina Rosenfeld of NYU Silver School of Social Work; Rabbi Judith Hauptman, who was unable to attend the event, professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological seminary; Elizabeth Koltun, editor of The Jewish Woman anthology (first published in 1973), followed by a career as a lawyer. Arlene Agus advises the Jewish Child Care Association; Leora Fishman is a physician; Eva Fogeleman is a psychologist active in the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance; Maureen McCleod retired as a family court judge.

At this year’s retelling, organized by JCC staffer Rabbi Carol Levithan, Judith Hyman Rosenbaum, the one second-generation Jewish feminist on the program, framed today’s issues. For Rosenbaum, director of public history at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Mass., these include not just the issue of wages for the senior woman rabbi but also the wages of synagogue custodians and the immigrant woman the rabbi relies on at home. LGBT issues (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender) are also, in Rosenbaum’s words, “a major challenge in a good way — exploding the gender binary at the heart of Judaism.”