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Reform rabbis debate women's ordination

June 30, 1922

On June 29, 1922, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement's professional organization, meeting in Cape May, N.J., debated a resolution declaring that "women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination [as rabbis]." After tabling the resolution overnight, the Conference voted 56 to 11 on June 30, to affirm in principle the right of women to become rabbis. The debate, notable for its invitation to the women present (mainly rabbis' wives) to participate in the discussion, may have been successful in changing some minds. The New York Times reported on the morning of June 29 that a majority of conference attendees were opposed to the resolution, but on June 30 the same newspaper reported that "the sentiment [was] seemingly largely in favor of the entry of women."

The Cape May resolution was inspired indirectly by the ratification of the 19th amendment, in 1920, and directly by Martha Neumark, a 17-year-old student at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati, who, that same year, asked to be assigned, like her male rabbinical school classmates, to a high holiday student pulpit. Her request raised the possibility that Neumark, daughter of a HUC faculty member, might ultimately present herself as a candidate for ordination.

When the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote, it aroused an expectation among at least some Americans that all barriers to women's full equality in American society would subsequently fall. Reform Judaism, which had already instituted many changes meant to bring Judaism into accord with the spirit of the times and which had long advocated women's equality, might have been expected to drop barriers to women's full participation. The rabbis' resolution, in fact, noted the "revolution" in the status of contemporary women and explained the vote as an acknowledgment of the "enrichment and enlargement of congregational life" which had grown out of women's contributions.

Despite the CCAR resolution, Neumark was never ordained. The College's governing board voted in February 1923 to bar female ordination, indicating that there did not seem to be any practical need for such a step. Neumark eventually withdrew from HUC (having completed 7½ years of the 9 year curriculum). Although other women would study at HUC over the years, some completing the rabbinical curriculum and many earning other degrees, no woman in the United States would be ordained as a rabbi until 1972, when Sally Priesand became the first, 50 years after the CCAR first resolved to make it possible.

See also: This Week in History for May 12, 1985 "Amy Eilberg ordained as first female Conservative rabbi"; June 3, 1972 "First American woman rabbi "; March 26, 2003 "Rabbi Janet Marder becomes president of CCAR"; February 28, 2009 "Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus installed as president of the CCAR"; February 8, 1976 "Creation of the Women's Rabbinical Alliance"; Reform Judaism in the United States; Rabbis in the United States.

Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1115-1120, 1136-1140; New York Times, June 29, June 30, July 1, 1922; Ellen M. Umansky, "Women's Journey toward Rabbinic Ordination," in Women Rabbis: Exploration and Celebration, Papers Delivered at an Academic Conference Honoring Twenty Years of Women in the Rabbinate, 1972-1992, ed. Gary P. Zola (Cincinnati, 1996): 171-179; Pamela S. Nadell, Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women's Ordination, 1889-1985 (Boston, 1998); Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution, jwa.org/feminism/?id=JWA059.

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Jewish Women's Archive. "This Week in History - Reform rabbis debate women's ordination." (Viewed on April 17, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/jun/30/1922/ccar>.