Marcia (Marty) Cohn Spiegel: A Trailblazer for L.A. Women

Spiegel made her mark as one of the first to write about abuse and alcoholism in the Jewish community, when the prevailing approach to those topics was denial and silence. After going back to school 35 years ago for a social work degree at 50, Spiegel taught at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and, working for the National Council of Jewish Women, she led some of the germinal Jewish feminist workshops in the 1980s. Later, she was a participant in a conference focusing on spirituality, and still later, she was one of the organizers of a conference about women and power in Jewish organizations.

Her work goes on. She’s part of a small national group  B’not Esh  daughters of fire , meeting for 32 years, and setting the agenda for the larger Jewish community. Its youngest member is now 28. “These are rabbis, Ph.D. historians, psychologists and social workers, so the work we did began to find its way into normative synagogues and prayer books,” says Spiegal.

Her own work with those going through trauma and grief convinced Spiegal to have a Simchat Chochmah (ceremony of wisdom) when she turned 60. For this, her friend the late songwriter Debbie Friedman wrote her now-well-known Mi Shebeirach, as a prayer for Spiegel to heal from her own suffering and losses.

In 2000, Spiegel and Rabbi Laura Geller were invited to speak at Spiegel’s congregation, Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, California, on “The Future of Jewish Women.” Spiegel said, “Before I can talk about where we’re going, I have to talk about where we’ve been. Just 15 years ago, when I joined this congregation, I was asked to remove my tallit. A man said my wearing it was as disrespectful as if I had come into the synagogue naked. It was that offensive.”

The remarkable leadership and creativity among Jewish women in Los Angeles today thrills her, and she attributes it, in part, to the success she and her early counterparts had in beginning to shatter the glass ceiling for female Jewish professionals in L.A. and elsewhere. 

And yet, when asked why she thinks so many of the new Jewish entities in Los Angeles are being led by women, she noted that, “While I was in graduate school, we examined the feminization of certain professions. At the time there were two women rabbis in L.A. and no major Jewish organization was headed by a woman. We discussed that as the number of women increased in a profession, the less attractive it became to men.

On the bright side, Spiegel observed, as new generations come up, they have seen women in power and are not frightened by it.