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Sisterhood, Jewish and Otherwise, Is Indeed Powerful

November 3, 2005 By:
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Lori Lefkowitz
For the past 40 years, Jewish women have been at the forefront of the feminist movement, challenging nearly every conventional attitude regarding women's lives, and in the process have transformed American society.

Judaism was not immune to this transformative spirit, as Jewish feminists demanded that the religious community come to terms with the fact that it had treated women as peripheral members, and needed to include them in the rituals in synagogue, seminaries and at home.

A new online exhibit, www.jwa.org/feminism, put together by the Massachusetts-based Jewish Women's Archive, examines these currents of change.

Among the 74 pioneering women featured in the exhibit are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, activist Gloria Steinem, theologian Judith Plaskow and Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman to be ordained in America.

The online material also includes two Philadelphians: Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, director of the Pennsylvania Council of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Lori Lefkovitz, founder of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

"We put together a narrative that's multifocal," said Judith Rosenbaum, the curator of the exhibit, which was up and running on the Web on Sept. 26. "We did that in part so we could get a multifaceted perspective on this story."

A viewer could literally spend hours roaming the text, audio and video clips included in the exhibit, titled "Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution."

A timeline marks some important milestones, such as the publication date - 1963 - of Betty Friedan's landmark critique The Feminine Mystique, and the appearance, in 1973, of Rachel Adler's seminal article advocating for women to be allowed to read Torah in services and encouraged to study Talmud.

Rosenbaum explained that women growing up today could take many of the gains accomplished by secular and religious feminists for granted. She said that part of the goal of the exhibit, which will remain online indefinitely, is to teach women in their mid-30s or younger about events and times they were too young to have experienced or fully understood.

"We hope to show just how radical many of these women were, and the ways in which all or some of these gains are still partial," observed Rosenbaum. "We hope that people will be able to draw from these inspiring stories to think about how to take these changes even further."

Elwell, 57, of Center City, founded the American Jewish Congress' Feminist Center in Los Angeles, and later served as the first rabbinic director of Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

"The exhibit itself gives a very strong sense of 30 years of transformation," said Elwell, who donated a brochure to the exhibit dating back to when the feminist center first opened in 1990. "We have really woven a fabric of change and challenged the way the Jewish community has always done things."

Lefkovitz - whose center has done research concerning Jewish women's spirituality and the depiction of females in the Bible - has donated a red stone necklace to the archive. In traditional Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, rebbetzins would offer a red stone to a woman who was having trouble conceiving a child, explained Lefkovitz on the Web site.

Lefkovitz, who herself happens to be married to a rabbi, once had a problem with being called rebbetzin, beleiving that it represented the repressive Judaism of the shtetl. She now takes pride in the title.

"My commitments are to Judaism, the Jewish people and to women, and each of those things serves the other," she said. "Women's texts, traditions [and] experiences have been neglected. Increasingly, those things are being recovered and included."

 

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