Creation of the Women's Rabbinic Alliance
On February 8, 1976, 15 female rabbis and rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College gathered "to investigate topics of general concern."
By the end of the meeting, the Women's Rabbinical Alliance (WRA) was born. Though centered in New York and Philadelphia, the early WRA reached out to female rabbinical students on HUC-JIR's Cincinnati and Los Angeles campuses as well. In 1980, the WRA dissolved and was replaced by the Women's Rabbinic Network (WRN). Unlike the original group, the WRN was—and remains—specifically tied to the Reform movement.
Initially, the WRN remained so small that members joked that meetings "could be held in the women's restroom during conventions of the Central Conference of American Rabbis [CCAR, the North American Reform movement's organization for North American rabbis]." In fact, at the 1981 CCAR conference in Jerusalem, the WRN meeting took place at a Turkish bath. Four women were present.
Not surprisingly, many women rabbis faced hostility in filling a historically exclusively male position. The WRN offered an important forum for addressing shared issues and was a critical force in opening formerly all male Reform hierarchies to female participation. It also played a critical role in challenging a professional model for the rabbinate that made little room for the personal realities of women’s lives. WRN helped, for example, to develop standards for maternity leaves within the rabbinate.
Women's growing numbers within the rabbinate (with more than 500 Reform women rabbis since 1972) have meant a greater diversity of age, experience, opinion, and personality in the WRN. Yet the goals of the Network remained essentially the same: to address the particular challenges faced by women in the rabbinate, especially the issue of gaining acceptance in mainstream congregations, and to provide opportunities for discussion among women rabbis. Still firmly tied to the CCAR, WRN has been central in raising issues—such as the role of part-time rabbis or the question of whether Reform rabbis should officiate at same-sex weddings—that are of concern to male as well as female rabbis.
Sources: Balin, Carole B. "From Periphery to Center: A History of the Women's Rabbinic Network," CCAR Journal, Summer 1997; www.religioustolerance.org/hom_jref.htm.