Herstory Lesson #1: Summary of Jewish Women’s Movements from 1967-1973

Another part of my internship involves doing research for a professor who is working on a book on Jewish women’s involvement in the feminist movement of the later 20th Century, and my job has been to look at documents from women’s ogranizations and events that were specifically Jewish in focus. Even though Jewish women have always had a role in the development of feminism, including Shulamith Firestone of New York Radical Women and Redstockings, and several women in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, their Jewishness and their relationship to Jewish society did not really get much airplay in their day-to-day activism. There are many, many reasons for this and I’ll leave that to my professor to explain in her book, but I’ll briefly summarize the trends in Jewish-focused feminism from 1967-1973, which are basically the years the whole thing got started.

1967-1972: During the growth of student movements in the 1950s until 1967, there were many, many Jews actively involved in all sorts of radical, socialist, anti-war, New Left, etc. movements, but the majority of these Jews, predominantly students, did not self-identify heavily as Jewish or organize themselves into specifically Jewish groups, or address Jewish issues. However, the Six Day War in 1967 was a huge deal for a lot of Jewish students, who were faced to confront their Jewish identity when it became popular in the New Left to denounce Israel as an “imperial aggressor” and expressed disproportionate support to groups such as Fatah and the PLO. Many were uncomfortable with what they saw as having to make a choice between being radical and being Zionist, and thus started a Jewish student activist movement aimed at combining radical activism with Jewish Zionism and other forms of increasingly popular identity politics. As a result of this split, organizations such as the North American Jewish Student’s Network (now the World Union of Jewish Students) and formalized religious groups from the Havurah movement were formed, and published periodicals such as the Jewish Liberation Journal, Brooklyn Bridge and Davka. Through these groups and publications they addressed concerns that had not been voiced before, including stereotypes about the “Jewish American Princess” (I didn’t know this term had such a long history!) and the disconnect between the Jewish Federation and the priorities of young college students.

One particularly important document that I looked at was Rachel Adler’s article in Davka called “The Jew Who Wasn’t There,” in which she addressed the limiting impact on women placed by stereotypes and expected roles for Jewish women to fill, stating that women were treated as “peripheral” Jews through their exclusion from public Jewish life and obligations. Acknowledging that a lot of the problems could be changed outside of halakha, she thought the more interesting question would be to see if these problems could be addressed and changed within the halakhic process. She proposed vast changes to the way in which women participated, which in her view could be reconciled with Jewish law in varying degrees of difficulty. This article became very popular and became widely discussed among Jewish young adults, and was eventually re-published in Response.

The women’s movement within this new branch of the Jewish left took off in response to what many women in this movement saw as a domination by men of the topics and priorities of these new movements, and thus women started organizing themselves as Jewish women within both Jewish Left organizations and secular Left organizations. During this time, women started organizing discussion groups (often reading Adler’s article), seminars (one in particular at Ramah in the Berkshires) minyanim at Brandeis, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Michigan and at Hillel’s Summer Leadership Conference, and even a counter-conference in Boston when Havurat Shalom decided to exclude women from its conference. In the Conservative Movement, women started a group called Ezrat Nashim that would serve as a major Jewish women’s religious organization, and in the Orthodox Movement, Lincoln Square Synagogue hosted events such as now-Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s groundbreaking Bat Mitzvah, and  had a women’s hakafa during Simchat Torah.

1973: 1973 was a groundbreaking year for Jewish Women’s Movements, since the first National Conference on Jewish Women was held in February at the McAlpin Hotel in New York. Sponsored by the North American Jewish Student’s Network, the conference brought 450 Jewish women to meet as Jewish women for the first time in such high numbers in this part of the 20th Century. Issues discussed included Jewish women’s history, the role of women as volunteers, inequality in Jewish organizations, the experiences of women growing up in Jewish families, and women made many contacts which each other and agreed to start a newsletter called “Lilith’s Rib,” edited by Maralee Gordon. Some controversy was raised due to the perceived lack of consideration and attention given to to particular groups of women, such as working class women and queer women, and they ended up holding their own discussion groups during this conference after a confrontation with the organizers.

The most famous speech from this conference was given by Blu Greenberg (reprinted many times, an Orthodox woman and later head of the Jewish Orthodox Women’s movement, who addressed the tension between feminism and Jewish values, and sought to increase the participation of women in religious life, while warning against certain irreconcilable points of contention between the feminist movement and the goals of Jewish survival, particularly addressing the importance of the family, which she believed feminism sought to devalue and alter. One important thing to note is that at this conference, workshops and speeches addressing religious aspect of women’s empowerment in Jewish society far overshadowed those that dealt with secular topics, and secular women noted that religious topics and interests dominated the discussion (for more detail on that, see Tamara Cohen’s excellent Master’s Thesis “An Overlooked Bridge: Secular women of the Jewish Left and the Rise of Jewish Feminism.”)

The rest of 1973 saw a significant number of conferences in Chicago, Los Angeles, Israel, as well as several Jewish women’s consciousness-raising groups throughout North America, and a women’s seder held in Chicago. It also saw the Yom Kippur War, which caused a lot of Israeli women to distance themselves from the feminist movement in order to tend to national needs, and brought Jewish women in America into a different stage in their relationship to Zionism and politics. However, this period of time changed the face of women’s involvement in and relationship to Judaism across movements forever, and its legacy survives to this day.

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2 thoughts on “Herstory Lesson #1: Summary of Jewish Women’s Movements from 1967-1973

  1. LadyG says:

    Emmy, I won’t have time to digest this until probably the weekend, but I just wanted to publically thank you for posting on this topic.

    Herstory lessons are never popular except among the already converted (and not even then), but goodness knows I need this lesson, even if no one else is willing to listen.

    I can’t wait to read your professor’s book when it comes out. I hope you get a named acknowledgment! (if you don’t, your professor is a selfish jerk.)

  2. Emmy says:

    Thanks! I hope you enjoy it. To clarify, I was just using Herstory as a pun. It’s just a light summary of Jewish women’s history from 1967-1973.

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