American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Interview with Rela Mintz Geffen – How the Status of American Jewish Women Has Changed over the Past Decades

“Until a few decades ago, Jewish women were literally written out of Jewish history. The Encyclopedia Judaica, published in the 1960s, contained biographies of some women, but in scholarly articles individual women and the role of women as a group were hardly mentioned. In recent years, when revisions were made, the editors decided to restore women to Jewish history.

“They appointed Judith Baskin, president of the Association for Jewish Studies and a scholar of medieval literature, to be a ‘gender editor.’ I myself was asked to update more than ten articles specifically on gender issues.

“For example, the encyclopedia article on candles did not mention the word woman. The article on kashrut [Jewish dietary laws] did not discuss the role of women. In my revision, I pointed out that while supervision and shechita [ritual slaughter] were male tasks, the community had to rely on women to keep the dietary laws and to teach them to their daughters. Without trust in the faithful execution by women of mitzvot [commandments] related to kashrut there would have been no observance of the dietary laws or of holidays such as Passover.”

Boycotting Kosher Butchers

Geffen mentions an early important role of women in American Jewish history. “In the first decade of the twentieth  century,  Jewish  women  in  New York City successfully organized a boycott of kosher butcher shops to counteract a precipitous rise in the price of kosher meat. They eventually broke the butchers.

“According to the American Jewish activist Paula Hyman, they ‘went so far as to inspect the cholent [Shabbat stew] pots of women en route to the bakery— where the dish was kept warm—on Friday afternoon in order to ensure that the Shabbat meal would be a meatless one…they also interrupted synagogue services on the Shabbat in order to gain the support of male worshipers for their cause and to secure rabbinic endorsements.’1 These tactics were the precursors of those of various America labor unions such as the garment workers.”

Change over a Short Time

“From the perspective of the social sciences, four decades is not a long time span to see major social change. Yet as far as the role of Jewish women in America is concerned, many changes have taken even less time.

“The changed role of women has led to alterations in the complexion of the American Jewish community. These changes are undeniably related to what is happening in American society at large. Yet they have a specifically Jewish flavor and take place in many areas across Jewish life. One proof of how far it has gone is that at major ultra-Orthodox conferences there are now separate women’s sections. In the past, women would not have been present at all.

“The opening of the study of rabbinics and classical Jewish texts to women is one major area of change. In the past, some Jewish women came from very wealthy families and their fathers could afford to hire special tutors who visited them at home. Others were women living in homes of scholars, and studied with their fathers, husbands, or brothers. Most women could not follow suit as there were no Jewish schools for them.”

The Pioneer

“Working with Prof. David Halivni, Judith Hauptman received the first PhD in Talmud awarded to a woman at the Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS]. This is a very difficult degree to obtain. At the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Prof. Ephraim Urbach’s last PhD in Talmud was awarded to Tirzah Meachum, a Canadian woman. I consider these even greater accomplishments than the ordination of female Reform rabbis, which started in 1972 with Sally Priesand.”

In 1965, Geffen was one of the first three women Talmud majors at JTS and wanted to go on for an MA in Talmud. “I was told that this was impossible as all advanced classes were in the rabbinical school. A few years later, matters changed somewhat and Hauptman started to work on an MA in Talmud, which took her ten years. Her PhD followed, and now she is a full professor at JTS.

“Even if only a few tens of women have such degrees, the access of women to Jewish classics has a great impact. Through university study as well as the excellent classes provided at MaTaN in Jerusalem and the Drisha Institute in New York, women can access rabbinical sources directly and often have a better Jewish education than their husbands.

“In some Jewish schools in the United States, boys and girls have the same curriculum even if they learn in separate classes. Those with coeducational classes certainly have the same curriculum. In ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaacov schools girls are not only separate but the curriculum is different from that of boys’ schools.

“Another major influence stems from the introduction of Jewish studies on many American campuses. During the first half of the twentieth century, many Jewish women did not receive a formal Jewish education. Their access to these studies, particularly since the exponential growth of Jewish day schools and of Jewish studies on hundreds of American college campuses, has greatly advanced their knowledge. As women are half the population, this affects the tenor of the community very much. One can now find several hundred Jewish women teachers holding doctorates in Jewish studies and being university scholars, which, in turn, impacts the way Jewish history is taught.

“In academe there has been great progress. Prof. Jane Gerber was the first woman president of the Association for Jewish Studies. Since then professors Ruth Wisse, Judith Baskin, and Sara Horowitz have held this position. I was the only female president of a Jewish university or college. Yet there are some female deans at JTS and at Hebrew College in Boston.”

Community Leadership

“Women have risen to public leadership of the Jewish community in lay positions more than in the professional realm. Shoshana S. Cardin is the best known. She and June Walker have been the only woman chairs of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Cardin has also chaired the United Israel Appeal and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, and has been president of the Council of Jewish Federations, which now has become The Jewish Federations of North America.

“Carol Solomon was the lay head of the Jewish Agency and Judy Yudof was president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Barbara Balser became the first female president of ADL. In 2003, Rabbi Janet Ross Marder was elected the first woman president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. In 2004, Judge Ellen M. Heller of Baltimore was elected president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In 2009, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld was selected to be executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella organization of Conservative rabbis.

“It remains, however, much easier for a woman to become a Reform or a Conservative rabbi or president of a synagogue than the executive director of a federation. There have been women executive directors only in smaller federations such as Cindy Chazan in Hartford, Connecticut. At present, of the forty largest Jewish federations, there is only one woman CEO, Janet Engelhart at the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island.

“At the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hannah Rosenthal held the top executive position for a short time. At the UJA-Federation of New York, Aliza Rubin Kurshan is the number two executive and Louise Greilsheimer occupies a parallel position.

“In  2001  United  Jewish  Communities  [UJC]  and  Advancing Women Professionals [AWP] launched a study of the status of women professionals in the Jewish community. In 2004 a comprehensive report was issued that documented gender inequality throughout the Jewish federation system.2 In 2005 the alumni of the Wexner Heritage Program for Jewish volunteer leaders were surveyed about leadership positions held in the past five years. Male and female alumni were almost equally represented at the level of committee chairperson. However, at the level of board member or board president, women were underrepresented.

“A study of women on Jewish organizational boards commissioned by Maa’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project identified forty organizations as major agencies. Of those, only two had women CEOs as of the year 2000. In the same study, more than half of the thirty national organizations that answered a survey question on compensation did not have a woman in their five highest-salaried positions. Gender inequity within the Jewish communal field has long been a subject of controversy and concern.” One reason for the overall situation, Geffen suggests, is that the top professional positions of Jewish organizations are filled by executives who remain there for many years. With so little rotation it takes long to reach the top.

Entrepreneurial Women

Geffen observes: “One success story is Ruth Messinger, who heads the American Jewish World Service. She is very entrepreneurial and smart. Messinger gave life to a dying institution. In order to get recognized in the Jewish community, however, she had first to become borough president of Manhattan and run for mayor! So if you come from a prominent family, as Messinger does, and you were a serious candidate to become mayor of New York City, you can get an executive position in the Jewish community. This is an indicator of the lack of utilization of all the rich human capital available to the community.

“Entrepreneurial women who began new institutions could be at their helm. Gail Twersky Riemer founded the Jewish Women’s Archives. Shifra Bronznick created AWP to study and remedy the problem of the glass ceiling for women in the American Jewish community. Barbara Dobkin, a philanthropist who founded the above-mentioned Ma’ayan, a women’s study and resource center in New York, together with her husband Eric, donated $1 million to fund the UJC study on the status of Jewish women in the federations.”


In a previous interview, Geffen said: “For many decades, the philosophy of fundraising was ‘talk to the man and get the woman out of the way.’ This was based on a stereotype that regarded women as selfish, urging their husbands not to give so as to ensure more disposable income for themselves.

“Women’s divisions or departments were auxiliary to the main fundraising body. They raised what was called ‘plus giving.’ There were women’s divisions in every federation, and counterpart organizations like B’nai B’rith and B’nai B’rith Women. This was the normative form of Jewish organization. When B’nai B’rith went coed, B’nai B’rith Women seceded, becoming Jewish Women International. Perhaps the most notable is Hadassah, probably the most important of Zionist organizations and exclusively the creation of Jewish women.”

Geffen added: “Today’s Jewish women also tend to do volunteer work in fields which interest them—education, medical research and so forth. Once attracted to such issues, they will give both money and time, even if the latter is difficult to find.”3

Now, Geffen remarks: “A major effort has been made by women’s organizations as well as departments of local Jewish federations to bring women into Jewish philanthropy. In almost every city there are women’s giving circles, which can be considered a new ‘in’ thing in the United States. A woman who gives, say, one thousand dollars a year, becomes part of the group that can allocate funds. Many federations have tried to create internal women’s giving circles. There are also many independent circles funding projects that serve women and girls.

“In February 2005, a Baltimore business newspaper reported a study showing this trend has taken hold in Greater Baltimore. More people are pooling their resources by forming giving circles to collectively support community development. These range  from  informal  gatherings  of  a  group  of  friends to national networks functioning as their own nonprofit, and have collected more than $44 million nationally since 2000. In Greater Baltimore, twelve giving circles have raised more than $1 million over the last several years.4 Federations have also reshaped their women’s departments to some extent. They are doing a bit better with professional women. Some Jewish foundations have a female chief executive. Harlene Appleman, who was very active in Jewish family education in Detroit, now heads the Covenant Foundation, which gives grants and awards in Jewish education.

“Some women are prominent in their own family foundations. Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, one of the late Joseph Meyerhoff’s daughters, manages the Meyerhoff Foundation in Baltimore. This is by national standards a very powerful Jewish foundation. Barbara Dobkin has supported the Jewish Women’s Archives as well as Ma’ayan. Often in past decades the only women who held such positions were widows of philanthropists who assumed power after their deaths. Lynn Schusterman, who now heads—with her daughter—a major American Jewish foundation, the Schusterman Foundation, was a full partner with her husband, until his death.

“There are several powerful Jewish women in public life who are not active in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, they may be considered spokespeople for the community when the moment is right. With Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, the state of California has two Jewish senators. Among the Supreme Court justices is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She could be a very important spokesperson, but like most Supreme Court justices has chosen to remain circumspect. There are also Jewish women presidents of major American universities.”

Religious Leadership

“Religious leadership is another type of public leadership. In the religious sphere women have been able to achieve good positions more easily than in the public, secular one. That is partly because when a woman becomes a rabbi, she automatically steps into a position that confers what sociologists call ‘ascribed status.’ Still, a recent study by Steven M. Cohen and Judith Schor showed that the salaries of female graduates of the JTS rabbinical school are substantially lower than those of men and so are their positions.5 A major step was taken by the Rabbinical Assembly, the ‘union’of Conservative rabbis when, as aforementioned, Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld was chosen as the new executive vice-president in 2009.

“Within the Reform movement—for the first time—a number of women have attained the position of senior rabbi at major congregations. This has taken a long time. Of course, if a synagogue has a team of rabbis, social workers, and educators, it is quite usual today for one of them to be a woman rabbi. Yet some people want to have a male rabbi lead funerals or perform weddings. Thus, having senior female rabbis is a true breakthrough.

“The Reconstructionistmovement was founded based on egalitarian principles and thus has admitted and ordained women since the founding of its rabbinical college in 1968. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso was ordained in 1974, second only to Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordainee from the Hebrew Union College [HUC]. Several women have served as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association [RRA].

“Many female graduates of rabbinical school—like many men—have gone into educational work. One increasingly sees more women as principals of day schools, educational directors of synagogues, and chaplains in hospitals.”

Lifecycle Rituals

“Besides the public aspect of religion, there is the private one—what individuals and families do at home in the household. There is a debate about the current role of the home in maintaining a Jewish life. The family is still functioning and powerful. However, it is not necessarily working positively on Jewish matters.

For many Jews the synagogue remains the central grassroots Jewish institution in America.

“The Jewish feminist movement began with lifecycle rituals. The bat mitzvah [the coming of age of girls] ritual was part of its origins. The story is that on 18 March 1922, the first bat mitzvah was that of Judith Kaplan, the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan founder of the Teachers Institute at JTS and later of Reconstructionism. At the age of twelve, Judith was called to the Torah on Shabbat morning, recited the blessings and read the final portion. She wrote that her own grandparents were shocked by it at the time.

“No change in the ritual lifecycle field took place for a long time. However, in the 1950s bat mitzvah began to reemerge in the flourishing suburban synagogues of the Conservative movement. The Reform movement, which had replaced bar mitzvah [the coming-of-age ceremony of boys] with confirmation in 1846, returned to celebrating it due to parental pressure. Bat mitzvah was then established as an equivalent coming-of-age ceremony for girls.

“The bat mitzvah became normative in American Conservative synagogues only in the 1960s. But it was still optional and only in a few places did it take place on Shabbat morning. In most synagogues it was on Friday night. It was thus neither here nor there.”

The Conservative Movement

“In 1956, when a religious ruling was requested from the Conservative movement’s law committee about whether women could be called to the Torah, there were very different opinions. Several minority opinions were adopted by the Committee on Law and Standards. The result was that each rabbi, as mara d’atra [local religious decisor], could decide the policy for his own synagogue.

“In practice very little happened. In a survey I undertook for Outlook, the Jewish Women’s League’s magazine in the early 1970s, I wrote to sisterhoods all over the country and sent them a questionnaire. One question was whether women could be called up to the Torah, and under what circumstances. At most, ten synagogues in the whole United States answered in the affirmative. Even then, for several it was only on special occasions.

“The general feminist movement came onto the American scene in the early 1970s. Among its leaders were important Jewish women. For most Judaism was peripheral to their lives. At the same time, there were many Jewish women who cared about Judaism but not about feminism. Thus there was no synthesis until a group was formed of women who were both feminists and Jewishly learned and cared much about traditional observance.

“This happened around the nexus of Columbia University and the JTS. Many of them came out of Camp Ramah, and the development was also connected to the beginning of the havurah [small religious fellowships] movement. Many suburban synagogues had become large and impersonal. Founders of the havurah movement sought to create groups that would study, pray, and celebrate together in a more personally committed way.

“Many social movements were formed at that time—this was related to the situation in American society—the feeling President Kennedy engendered that people could make a difference in the world, and the general 1960s atmosphere. It was very American, but it was also very Jewish.

“Ten to twelve women started a group called Ezrat Nashim. They could do so because the world was ready to be changed. Several were doctoral students at Columbia and JTS, observed Shabbat, and went to synagogue. The New York Post interviewed one of them, Hyman, who later became a dean of List College and JTS and now holds a chair in Jewish history at Yale, and asked her: ‘How is it that you turn into a different person on the weekend?’ At Columbia she was an active feminist working on her doctorate in Jewish history. However, on Shabbat she would go to the seminary synagogue for services and sit separately in the women’s section.

“One group member was Hauptman, who had advanced knowledge of the Talmud. The group studied all sections of it that had to do with women. As a result of their study, by the end of the first year they became radicalized. In the second year, they continued and started to do projects such as collecting books about Jewish women, writing birth ceremonies for baby girls and nonsexist holiday stories for Jewish children.”

Presenting a Manifesto

“They finally wrote a manifesto, and decided to present it to a group of rabbis. On 14 March 1972 they went to a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly. They asked permission to be let into the conference to address the rabbis, which was refused. So they called a meeting of all the rabbis’ wives in the lobby. They had alerted the media, and the New York Post and New York Times were there and all read their manifesto.

Response magazine gave the guest editorship of one issue to the women of Ezrat Nashim in 1972. A series of articles was published that became a Bible of the Jewish feminist movement. One focus was on lifecycle rituals, another on the role of women in Jewish public life.

“One of their first projects was the creation of simchat bat [rejoicing over a girl] material—it was not yet called that at the time—and injecting it into American Jewry as a parallel to brit milah [the male circumcision ceremony]. It quickly became necessary to explain why one had not had a ceremony to welcome a baby girl. Everybody was ready for it.

“Until then hardly any rabbis had acted to implement the 1956 Conservative responsum on calling women to the Torah. In 1973, when the law committee decided to permit the counting of women in the religious quorum of ten that can enable community prayers, within six months about half the country’s Conservative synagogues were calling women to the Torah.

“Ritual has changed dramatically because of women becoming part of the service. One example is that in many synagogues both professionals and laypeople now read the Torah. Women got so excited about being allowed to do it that many learned how to chant the cantillations.

“Women’s greater prominence inthelifecycle ritual had various repercussions. Besides having ceremonies for baby girls, mothers were now more included in the ceremonies for baby boys, and both boys and girls were called the children of both parents when their Hebrew names were used. Ceremonies for baby girls would only take place once the mother was there for the naming ceremony. The previous situation was that in suburbia women often did all the preparation for various joyous celebrations, but when it came to the actual ceremony, they were not necessarily able to participate or even to be in the room.

“Another important field is divorce. In the Conservative movement, both parties to the ketubah [wedding contract] agree that they will submit to the decision of any religious court appointed by the JTS with regard to dissolving the marriage. It is thus not that you agree to accept a divorce if the other party asks for it, but you accept the decision of the court. The Reform movement accepts civil divorce as binding.”

Modern Orthodoxy

“The concept of prenuptial agreements has also been accepted in the Modern Orthodox movement. Many Orthodox rabbis have the bride and groom sign a separate agreement. Some rabbis will not officiate at a wedding if there is no such agreement.

“Many Modern Orthodox rabbis also realized that there were no halachic [Jewish legal] problems with home ceremonies for baby girls. They increas- ingly started permitting inclusion of women and girls when they felt they could do so within halachah [Jewish law], both to be more inclusive and to show that they weren’t antifeminist. For example, if a synagogue could be architecturally designed so that women could see the service, they tried to have this done. They also encouraged public celebration of bat mitzvah, often with the girl giving a learned presentation from the pulpit after the service or at a luncheon or dinner that followed. Some Orthodox women were involved in the Jewish feminist move- ment from the beginning. Of these, Blu Greenberg remains the most important.”

Geffen says that she collects bat mitzvah invitations from the Orthodox community. “Sometimes this ceremony is called Bat Torah. The ultra-Orthodox world has to react to this because it is so powerful. They often do so very negatively. A more recent development among the Modern Orthodox is that rabbis hire female assistants. These are qualified rabbinic interns from places like Drisha, a women’s Talmudic study institute in New York. The new title coined for them is Maharat. In Israel, the training and functioning of the to’anot—rabbinic court advocates for women—parallels this development.

“The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance [JOFA] has held conferences attended by thousands of Modern Orthodox women and men. Their stated mission is: ‘to educate and advocate for women’s increased participation in Orthodox Jewish life and to create a community for women and men dedicated to such change…guided by the principle that halachic Judaism offers many opportunities for observant Jewish women to enhance their ritual observance and to increase their participation in communal leadership.’

“Following public debate over the ordination of women resulting from the decision of Rabbi Avi Weiss to change the title of Sara Hurwitz from Maharat to Rabba, the Rabbinical Council of America [RCA] in 2010 placed the issue of women’s religious leadership positions as the primary theme of its national conference. On 5 March the RCA issued the following resolution regarding women’s leadership roles and Orthodoxy:

Resolution on Women’s Communal Roles in Orthodox Jewish Life Adopted Without Dissent by the 51st Convention of The Rabbinical Council of America

1) The flowering of Torah study and teaching by God-fearing Orthodox women in recent decades stands as a significant achievement. The Rabbinical Council of America is gratified that our haverim [members] have played a prominent role in facilitating these accomplishments.

  • We members of the Rabbinical Council of America see as our sacred and joyful duty the practice and transmission of Judaism in all of its extraordinary, multifaceted depth and richness—halachah, hashkafah [worldview], tradition and historical
  • In light of the opportunity created by advanced women’s learning, the Rabbinical Council of America encourages a diversity of halachically and communally appropriate professional opportunities for learned, committed women, in the service of our collective mission to preserve and transmit our Due to our aforesaid commitment to sacred continuity, however, we cannot accept either the ordination of women or the recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title. [emphasis added]
  • Young Orthodox women are now being reared, educated, and inspired by mothers, teachers and mentors who are themselves beneficiaries of advanced women’s Torah   As  members  of  the  new  generation  rise  to positions of influence and stature, we pray that they will contribute to an ever-broadening and ever-deepening wellspring of talmud Torah [Jewish learning], of yir’at Shamayim [fear of God], and dikduk be-mitzvot [strict adherence to the commandments].

Geffen concludes: “To sum up: the enfranchisement of Jewish women has greatly enriched American Jewish life. Egalitarianism has become so pervasive and normative in American Jewish life that it rarely makes headlines. The only way that gender makes Jewish news now is when something really unexpected occurs such as changes in the Orthodox community or in the area of public organizational life where there remains a dearth of women professionals.”


  1. Paula Hyman, “Gender and the Immigrant Jewish Experience in the United States,” in Judith R. Baskin, ed. Jewish Women in Historical Perspective (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 234–35.
  2. The full results of the study were published in book form in 2008 as Shifra Bronzick, Didi Goldenhar, and Marty Linsky, Leveling the Playing Field (New York: AWP and Cambridge Leadership Associates).
  3. Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Rela Mintz Geffen, “Sociological Changes in the Community,” in American Jewry’s Challenge (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 209–19.
  4. Kate Milani, “Study: Giving Circles Growing,” Baltimore Business Journal, 9 February 2005.
  5. Steven Cohen and Judith Schor, “Gender Variation in the Careers of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained since 1985,” Rabbinical Assembly, New York, 2004.

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