This Day in Jewish History / American Jewish Feminists Call for Change

On this day in 1972, a group of women demanded equality from the American Conservative movement. Just a decade later, many of their goals were achieved.

On March 14, 1972, a group of Jewish feminists calling themselves “Ezrat Nashim" presented a list of demands related to the status of women to the Rabbinical Assembly of the U.S. Conservative movement. The name Ezrat Nashim refers to the women’s section in Orthodox synagogues, but also literally means “women’s help.” Although most Conservative shuls in America no longer had separate seating for the sexes by the 1970s, the presence of women in leadership positions in Conservative Judaism was limited and it was some time before they could become rabbis or be counted in a minyan.

In their statement “Jewish Women Call for Change,” the 10 signatories, the oldest of whom was 27, called for, among other things, recognition of women as witnesses, the right to initiate divorce proceedings, admission to rabbinical and cantorial school and  permission “to perform rabbinical and cantorial functions in synagogues,” and to be obligated in the same way as men to perform the mitzvot (religious commandments).

“It is not enough to say that Judaism views women as separate but equal,” declared the “Call for Change,” “not enough to point to Judaism’s past superiority over other cultures in its treatment of women. We’ve had enough of apologetics: enough of Bruria, Dvorah, and Esther; enough of eshet hayil,” (referring to the “woman of valor” of Proverbs 31).

Although the authors of the statement did not have an audience with the rabbis, who were then holding their annual convention in New York, they did distribute it in the conference packets received by each of the rabbis, and they had a face-to-face session with the rabbis’ wives. They also managed to attain media coverage, which helped bring these issues to the fore among American Jews. At the time, the Conservative movement was the largest denomination in U.S. Judaism.

Gradually, over the course of the next decade, nearly all of the proposals of Ezrat Nashim were fulfilled.

Most notably, on October 24, 1983, the Jewish Theological Seminary voted to accept women into its rabbinical school. As the late Paula Hyman, one of the members of Ezrat Nashim, and later a professor of Jewish history at Yale University and at JTS (and a participant in the vote on accepting women), noted many years later, that vote “marked the culmination of achievement of almost all that we had lobbied for over the course of more than a decade.”

Only the demand for women to be able to initiate divorce within the Conservative Movement has not yet been achieved. 

Joan Roth