The overall theme that emerges in this issue of LILITH is women’s pioneering—in the rabbinate, in secular Jewish communal life, and in the early American West.
The news that the Conservative movement would ordain women as rabbis—announced in October 1983—was welcomed jubilantly by LILITH readers as a milestone; this was both an important beginning and the culmination of years of struggle by committed women.
Many of you called LILITH’s office, having followed the issue for some time, beginning with our groundbreaking 1977 cover story on the politics of women’s ordination.
In this issue we continue our coverage in an interview with Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi (page 19). Eilberg’s ordination by the Jewish Theological Seminary in the Spring of 1985 created tremendous excitement among Jews and even in the national press. Eilberg discusses here her allegiance both to the tradition and to feminism, and how her feminism has evolved from “equality of access” to what has been called “the feminization of Jewish culture.” She also evaluates what progress for women for ordination may prefigure.
Eilberg says in her interview that she believes her ordination represents a call to women’s participation in all arenas of Jewish communal life. The struggle for women’s access to positions of responsibility and power—both volunteer and professional—in the Jewish community may prove even more difficult than the struggle over women’s ordination as rabbis, as our investigative report on women and power in the Jewish community indicates (page 7).
Discussions on women and communal power have been held at the Council of Jewish Federations General Assembly (North America’s largest conclave of people in leadership positions, held this November in Washington, D.C.) every year since Jacqueline Levine first broke silence and called for the equality of women at the G.A. in 1972.
Levine and a dozen other women interviewed for the LILITH report make it clear that progress has been accompanied by backsliding. It is especially significant that many of the women interviewed here insisted upon anonymity.
This special report raises important questions: How can individual Jewish women get into positions of power? Will this be good for women in general? Can any progress be made without collective action? Is this a question of “equal access” of individual women to power, or one of the feminization of the Jewish community—a struggle for democracy, egalitarianism and empowerment?
The environment in which we live and work obviously has a profound effect on what we will accomplish, as our photo-essay on pioneer Jewish women of the American West (page 14) convincingly demonstrates. Often when we think of American Jewish women’s history we imagine that almost all of our female forebears are represented by the experiences of east-coast urban Jewish women. A whole slice of our history has gone unrecognized until now. In catching us up with the extraordinary lives of the pioneer Jewish women who helped settle the American West, pioneering historical researcher Harriet Rochlin gives us not only biographical sketches but also valuable information about how these women saw themselves, and about the relevance their adventures and accomplishments have for Jewish women today.