This October marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Regina Jonas, the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. Born in Berlin in 1902, Jonas began talking to friends about her desire to become a rabbi when she was still a teen, and later studied under Eduard Banath, who oversaw ordination for the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a liberal, nondenominational seminary in Berlin. But when Banath died in 1930, Jonas struggled to find another rabbi willing to ordain her. She argued brilliantly for the possibility of women becoming rabbis and eventually won over Rabbi Max Dienemann, executive director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis, in 1935.
I’m a scholar of women’s history, so you’d think March—the official Women’s History Month—would be the highlight of my year. You’d be wrong. As I (and many others) have written about before, it’s insufficient to devote one month a year to the story of more than half the population, and problematic to ghettoize women’s history as if it isn’t integral to our understanding of all history.
But you’d also be right. Because a governmentally proclaimed Women’s History Month presents the opportunity—one that I gleefully embrace—to engage people in the work of making women’s history. By “work” I don’t just mean study. Sure, it’s great for teachers to use March as a time to focus on women’s stories in their classrooms. But women’s history also suggests a model for radically shifting our understanding of history from an academic subject to a worldview, and even a social justice imperative.
Usually, I’m a bit of a skeptic about the transformative power of women’s leadership. I don’t believe a woman in a position of power will necessarily create meaningful social change. I’m a little weary of celebrating “firsts” for women. I’m impatient and demanding and all the things feminists need to be if we’re going to change the world for more than an elite few.
And then there are moments when I feel the momentum rumbling beneath my feet and cynicism is nowhere to be found. Today I had one of those moments when I heard that Rabbi Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl has been chosen as the next Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue, a prominent and powerful Reform congregation in New York City.
As I prepare to leave my position as JWA’s Director of Public History after more than 12 years here, my mind keeps returning me back to the summer day in 2000 when I first stepped into the offices of the Jewish Women’s Archive. At the time, I was a disgruntled graduate student, disillusioned with life in the Ivory Tower and the academic study of women’s history. (Was a library really the best place to learn about women’s activism, I wondered?).
Last week, Rabbi Scott Perlo wrote a provocative article in the Washington Post in which he addressed the continuing discomfort that many Jews—even liberal, gender-equity-supporting ones—feel about female rabbis. He suggests that this puzzling phenomenon may be due to the central place nostalgia holds in many people’s feelings about Judaism. It comes as no surprise that this nostalgic vision does not include female rabbis.
A fire blazes through a garment factory. The building has too few exits and not enough fire escapes. Fire equipment cannot reach the fire. More than 100 people—many of them young women—die. Bodies, burnt beyond recognition, line the floor of a government building, awaiting identification.
If you’re thinking, “I know that story—it happened at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1911,” think again. Though the details fit the Triangle tragedy, the scene I’ve just described is the deadly fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, this past Saturday night.
In 1909, Jewish women revolutionized the American labor movement. Before the huge garment industry strike known as the “Uprising of the 20,000,” union leaders saw women workers as irrelevant to the labor movement because they did not fit into the model of the traditional male union member. But these garment workers, many of them young Jewish women, proved that women could, in fact, organize effectively and challenge working conditions, and in doing so, they expanded the definition of worker and union member.
Labor Day. In America, this holiday is more often associated with barbeques, sales, and the farewell to summer and white linen than with the contributions of workers. By design, it’s a less overtly political holiday than the workers’ holidays in Europe—the U.S. intentionally picked a day other than the International Workers’ Day of May 1st to avoid any whiff of radicalism.
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. " Judith Rosenbaum ." (Viewed on September 30, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/author/judith-rosenbaum>.