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Reform Judaism leader Jane Evans argues for ordination of women rabbis

April 29, 1957

On April 29, 1957, Jane Evans spoke to 1,000 delegates in favor of ordaining women rabbis at a biennial general assembly meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) – renamed the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) – the synagogue federation arm of the Reform movement, and of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS). Evans was the executive director of NFTS. In her speech at a special session of the meeting, Evans told her audience that "women are uniquely suited by temperament, intuition, and spiritual sensitivity to be rabbis." Although the New York Times called Evans's speech a "strong plea," the UAHC took no action.

Evans, however, continued her advocacy of women's ordination. At its 1963 biennial assembly, NFTS approved a resolution calling on the UAHC, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (the Reform movement's rabbinical seminary) to move forward on the ordination of women. Although some delegates were ambivalent, Evans was said to have the support of Jean Wise May, the daughter of the founder of American Reform Judaism, Isaac Mayer Wise. Nevertheless, the Reform movement in the U.S. did not ordain a woman rabbi until 1972, when Sally Priesand graduated from Hebrew Union College.

Women's rabbinic ordination was not the only progressive issue that Evans championed during her long career at the head of the NFTS. Hired as the first full-time executive director in 1933, Evans led the organization to pass resolutions supporting civil rights, access to birth control, fair employment practices, child labor legislation, the elimination of capital punishment, and de-escalation of the Vietnam War. A committed pacifist who became president of the National Peace Conference in 1950, Evans insisted that the NFTS encourage its members to speak out on national political issues as well as on issues concerning Reform Judaism specifically. She served as NFTS executive director until 1976, but she remained a central figure in the Reform movement as an activist and adviser to other movement leaders until her death in 2004.

See also: This Week in History for January 21, 1913 and June 3, 1972; National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods.

Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 979-982; New York Times, April 30, 1957, November 20, 1963, January 15, 1950; Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, jwa.org/feminism.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Reform Judaism leader Jane Evans argues for ordination of women rabbis." (Viewed on April 23, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/29/1957/jane-evans>.