First Jewish Women’s Conference Explores Personal Growth and Institutional Change

Bryna J. Fireside

“The Changing Role of Women in Judaism: The Cherished Rose or the Thorn in the Side of Tradition” was the title of the first Jewish women’s conference at Cornell University, held on February 6, 1977. Sparked by a controversy last Rosh Ha-shanah over whether or not women could receive an aliyah at the Conservative service, Hillel officers Sharon Flank and Libby Waldman initiated the plan for a conference where women could express their concerns and explore ways of effecting change. Cornell Hillel’s Rabbi Morris Goldfarb and director Illana Hoffman provided support.

The conference, attended by about 100 persons, began with a panel discussion of divergent views on women’s place in Judaism.

Rachel Seigel, psychiatric social worker:

“I am not a theologian, not a historian I am a Jew—a wandering European Jew come to America in my teens…. I am a woman—I have been married 33 years. I have mothered and probably overmothered one daughter and two sons…. I am deeply committed to the feminist cause of recognizing and challenging the rigid sex roles our society has created for women and for men….

Shoshannah Seidman, mother of two children:

“As a Jewish woman, I feel frustrated and resentful of those who try to push me out of the home. I resent those who ask ‘What do you do all day long?’ Judaism is not just a religion. It is a way of life. Being at home I feel I can do it (fulfill those obligations of wife and mother) to the best of my power.”

Beverly Tanenhaus, poet and critic:

“In my fairly typical Conservative Jewish family… I had to fight to be allowed to attend Hebrew School; my brothers went as a matter of course. Although I studied with the rabbi, my Bat Mitzvah was really a project between my mother and me…. The fact that I was an outstanding Hebrew student did not seem to significantly boost my self-esteem. I knew my performance could never compare with my brothers’ Bar Mitzvah because I was given less to accomplish; I was not entrusted with the reading of the Torah. To commemorate that special day, I was given brass candlesticks, a gold lame evening bag. My brothers received shares of IBM stock. In the materialistic values of that time, highlighted by a religious setting, I learned my lesson well: my brothers were worth more than I was.”

If there were some women in the audience who were dismayed that men were not only invited but were also allowed to participate in the conference, their worst fears were realized as soon as the first young male questioner rose and berated the feminists for “not knowing their place.” It appeared at first as if the comments of the minority of men were setting the tone of the conference. One man asked why women needed to be obligated to pray. “If you feel the need to pray, no one is stopping you.”

Suddenly a woman in the audience rose—Joan Friedman, a third-year rabbinical student at the (Reform) Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She explained that prayer which is not obligatory is not taken as seriously under Jewish law as prayer which is an obligation (mitzvah). It is obvious, she said, that if women are to take their full place as Jews, their right to fulfill such mitzvot must be established.

There was a hush. And then a burst of applause as the audience recognized that a woman had spoken as a Jew of authority and had legitimized the concerns of women. Women did not need to apologize any longer for their lack of knowledge. Their rabbi had spoken.

The workshops which followed included: “The Jewish Mother—Is She to Blame?”; “God Language”; “Women in Israeli Society”; “The Jewish Woman in Folklore”; “Creating New Rituals”; and “Marry a Doctor or Be One—College Women Choosing a Lifestyle.”

In the session “Marry a Doctor or Be One,” students discussed the pros and cons of a career which allowed time out for child-rearing, or careers which were portable and would fit in with a husband’s demands—but, surprisingly, none of the participants considered the possibility of remaining single, or being a single parent, or any lifestyle other than a traditional one.

Special tensions were apparent in those workshops that were attended by men. In one workshop, for example, everyone sat on low couches. The one man who attended chose to sit in a position of authority at the one desk in the room. He declined an invitation to share a seat with the other participants.

The talk by Joan Friedman on “Being a Woman in the Rabbinate” provided all who desire to see change within the existing structure a great sense of hope. Admitting that she is still troubled by conflicting issues of feminism vs. Judaism, she nevertheless is committed to her profession, feeling confident that the answers will come. She urged us to seek out new rituals, especially rites of passage for women as absolutely crucial, and maintained that she doesn’t have to accept everything just because it is written. Neither do we.

“Things change,” said Ms. Friedman, “by having people do them… the way to effect change is to do it. Then it will become normal.”