Conservative Judaism in the United States
Women have played a pivotal role in Conservative Judaism throughout the twentieth century and have been instrumental on both the grass-roots and national levels in propelling the Conservative Movement to confront essential issues including Jewish education, gender equality and religious leadership. The Conservative Movement’s attention over the decades to issues such as the religious education of Jewish girls, the status of the agunah (deserted wife), equal participation of women in ritual and the ordination of women has helped to shape the self-definition of Conservative Judaism and its maturation as a distinct denomination.
Solomon Schechter, president of the Jewish Theological Seminary (1902–1915), and his wife, Mathilde Schechter, were convinced of the indispensability of Jewish homemakers to the preservation of Judaism in the United States. After her husband’s death, Mathilde Schechter extended their vision by founding the National Women’s League (now the Women’s League For Conservative Judaism) in 1918 as the women’s division of the United Synagogue of America. Through this organization, which is the coordinating body of Conservative synagogue sisterhoods, the Conservative Movement has promoted the perpetuation of Conservative Judaism in America via the home, synagogue and community.
Mathilde Schechter believed in setting a personal example of Jewish living and was a powerful role model, especially for Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) faculty wives and rebbetzins (rabbis’ wives) who in turn influenced others. Rebbetzins have served as important role models and experts for their congregants. They opened their homes for Sabbath and holidays, teaching by example the beauty of Jewish observance. Some served as guides to fledgling sisterhoods by supervising committees and programs, delivering divrei Torah (brief talks on religious topics), and writing bulletin columns. They were particularly valuable in the area of kashrut, setting communal standards through their own home kitchens and teaching others the minutiae of keeping a kosher home.
The Conservative Movement experienced rapid growth in the interwar and post–World War II periods. During that time, congregational sisterhoods formed the backbone of the educational mission of the Conservative synagogue. Rabbis generally depended on these women for their loyal support of educational programming. Sisterhood women successfully took on many projects that greatly enhanced Conservative Jewish life in their synagogues, offering financial support as well as volunteer hours. They often took responsibility for assisting in Sunday and religious schools and were instrumental in organizing classes in Jewish living and observance for mothers. Typically, women also maintained the synagogue kitchen, both by ensuring kashrut and by serving as cooks and hostesses for the collations and luncheons that were the hubs of synagogue activities. Many groups also took it upon themselves to issue a sisterhood cookbook, a popular fund-raising project that demonstrated on a local level that it was possible to keep the highest standards of kashrut while cooking a wide variety of both Jewish and American-style dishes. Maintaining the synagogue gift shop, women were largely responsible for introducing Jewish ceremonial objects, as well as Jewish books and artwork, into the homes of Conservative Jews. Finally, these women were often instrumental in campaigns to decorate or refurbish synagogue buildings. Choosing curtains, carpeting and wall hangings, women often set the tone for their synagogue through their dedication to its beautification. Eventually, many women moved up the ranks of synagogue administration from sisterhood to congregational leadership positions, where they have played active roles as officers of congregations throughout the United States and Canada.
The National Women’s League provided inspiration on a national level for each of these local efforts through its publications and its leadership. For example, Betty Greenberg and Althea Osber Silverman shared their views on the beauty and spirituality of the Jewish home with other American Jewish women in “The Jewish Home Beautiful,” a pageant first presented in the Temple of Religion of the World’s Fair in 1940 and then published as a popular book by the National Women’s League. Althea Osber Silverman with her Habibi and Yow and Sadie Rose Weilerstein with her K’tonton series became noted children’s authors who made it easier for mothers to enrich their children’s Jewish upbringing by providing adventurous, age-appropriate stories on Jewish customs and festivals. The combined efforts of all these women reinforced the message that one could both embrace American culture and transmit a full Jewish life to one’s children. Through their writings, as well as through their lives, these women reassuringly demonstrated that Conservative Jewish living was compatible with the aspirations of upwardly mobile women.
The National Women’s League also played a crucial role in the national Conservative scene through its fund-raising capabilities. Responsible for collecting sufficient funds to open the Mathilde Schechter Residence Hall and, more recently, for refurbishing what is now called the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue, these women made an important difference in the quality of life for students at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Several difficult Jewish legal issues have long perplexed rabbinic leaders concerned about the inequality of women. The most difficult of these is that of the agunah, a woman whose husband has left her without issuing a Jewish divorce. She is unable to remarry as a result. The longstanding concern for the agunah is an important sign of the Conservative Movement’s commitment to addressing the unequal treatment of women. The Law Committee tried for over twenty years to resolve the dilemma, and the first breakthrough came with the adoption of what came to be known as the “Lieberman clause” (developed in 1953 by Talmudist and Conservative halakhic decisor Rabbi Saul Lieberman [1898–1983], who served as both dean and rector of the Jewish Theological Seminary), which made the Jewish marriage contract into a binding civil agreement that committed both husband and wife to abide by the recommendations of a Jewish court of law if their marriage ended. Though widely used throughout the Conservative Movement, it did not resolve the agunah problem. First, many rabbinic authorities hesitated to bring Jewish legal matters to the civil courts. Second, the civil courts have been reluctant to decide religious questions, even in states like New York that have laws prohibiting one spouse from impeding the remarriage of another. Therefore, the Joint Bet Din (Jewish court) of the Conservative Movement has, in recent years, become more aggressive in dealing with this problem, both by certifying Conservative rabbis qualified to write gittin (bills of divorce) and by using hafka’at kiddushin (annulment of marriage) as a tool against recalcitrant husbands. Based on a Talmudic text, though not universally accepted, hafka’at kiddushin is reserved for those severe cases where a Jewish divorce cannot be obtained, either because of the husband’s extreme recalcitrance or his disappearance. The Joint Bet Din deals with each case individually and, where necessary, grants approval for a local Bet Din to annul the marriage. This approach has protected and aided women beyond what the Lieberman clause accomplished without abandoning a commitment to Jewish legal principles.
The Conservative Movement has long advocated equal education for both sexes, calling for primary Jewish education for girls at a time when girls traditionally were receiving little formal Jewish instruction. Similarly, on a more advanced level, the Teachers Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary, founded in 1909, offered Jewish higher education to men and women on an equal basis. From 1915 on, it also offered a professional teacher-training curriculum that enabled women to prepare for careers in Jewish education.
The path of women from the periphery to the center of religious life began with the introduction of mixed seating in prayer services. By 1955, mixed seating characterized the overwhelming majority of Conservative congregations and served as a yardstick to differentiate them from Orthodoxy. The Bat Mitzvah, first introduced by Mordecai M. Kaplan in 1922 for his own daughter, Judith Kaplan (Eisenstein), became increasingly popular within the Conservative Movement. By 1948, approximately one-third of all Conservative synagogues had introduced such a ceremony. Bat mitzvah took different forms, including group rituals that resembled confirmation as well as individual ceremonies at the late Friday evening service, where the bat mitzvah girl generally chanted a haftarah. By the 1980s, most bat mitzvah ceremonies came to resemble a bar mitzvah, with girls being called to read from the Torah and chant a haftarah. A 1995–1996 survey of Conservative synagogues reported that 80% gave identical treatment to bar and bat mitzvah celebrants. The rapid growth of the bat mitzvah ceremony was also designed as an incentive to retain girls in the same supplementary religious school educational setting as boys. The Conservative Movement was challenged to accept the implications of this equality in education and obligation in places like Camp Ramah as well, where girls were given the opportunity to assume leadership roles in prayer services.
In 1955, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement responded to the changing role of women in the synagogue by deciding to permit women to be called up for aliyyot. At that time, the option was implemented in only a few synagogues in the Minneapolis area, but the precedent was established. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards passed a takkanah (enactment) that allowed women to count in a minyan equally with men. One year later, it adopted a series of proposals that equalized men and women in all areas of ritual, including serving as prayer leaders. Also in 1973, the United Synagogue of America, the Conservative Movement’s congregational association, now called the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, resolved to allow women to participate in synagogue rituals and to promote equal opportunity for women for positions of leadership, authority, and responsibility in congregational life. From 1972 to 1976, the number of Conservative congregations giving aliyyot (the honor of being called to the Torah) to women increased from seven percent to fifty percent. Grass-roots pressure for change intensified throughout the 1970s. In 1972, Ezrat Nashim, a group of young, well-educated women, most of whom were products of the camps and schools of the Conservative Movement, presented to the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly (CRA) a call for the public affirmation of women’s equality in all aspects of Jewish life. They demanded that women be granted membership in synagogues, counted in a minyan, allowed full participation in religious observances, recognized as witnesses in Jewish law, allowed to initiate divorce, permitted and encouraged to attend rabbinical and cantorial school and perform as Rabbis and Cantors in synagogues, encouraged to assume positions of leadership in the community, and considered bound to fulfill all the mitzvot (commandments) equally with men. While this call evoked a sympathetic response from the rabbinate, it precipitated widespread, often heated, divisive debate within the Conservative Movement and in the press over the following decade. Some women who wanted to become Conservative rabbis came to study at the seminary, and due to an unrelated academic reorganization effective with the 1974–1975 year, they were able to study in any class at their appropriate level. Preparing for ordination without being officially enrolled in the rabbinical school, they hoped that someday they would be ordained on the basis of their studies. In September 1977, the seminary’s chancellor, Gerson D. Cohen, appointed a Committee for the Study of the Ordination of Women as Rabbis, which held hearings in cities throughout the country to obtain the perspective of the laity as well as the view of its professionals. The committee’s final report of January 30, 1979, recommended, 11 to 3, that women be ordained, but the CRA voted 127 to 109 to take no action prior to the decision of the seminary faculty. Pressure increased when, one month later, seminary students formed GROW (Group for the Rabbinical Ordination of Women) in an attempt to organize political action and education. In 1979, the issue was brought to the seminary senate for a vote, but it was tabled when its divisiveness became apparent.
In 1983 the CRA decided to consider for membership Beverly Magidson, a graduate of Hebrew Union College. Her admission fell short of receiving the necessary three-quarters vote of rabbis present but had widespread support, an indication that such approval was imminent. This spurred the seminary to reconsider the issue, and on October 24, 1983, the seminary faculty voted thirty-four to eight, with one abstention and over half a dozen absent in protest, to admit women to the seminary’s rabbinical school. The Jewish legal basis for their acceptance was the responsum of Rabbi Joel Roth (known as the Roth Teshuvah), which held that individual women could become rabbis (and prayer leaders) if they chose to assume the same degree of religious obligation as men. Individuals opposed to the decision formed the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, which became a separate group in 1990, changing its name to the Union for Traditional Judaism.
The first class to include women entered the seminary in the fall of 1984 and amy eilberg was the first woman ordained (1985). At the spring 1985 convention, the CRA voted to admit for membership Beverly Magidson and Jan Kaufman, also a graduate of Hebrew Union College. Their membership was made effective July 1, 1985, to enable Eilberg, the seminary graduate, to be the first woman admitted to the CRA. By 1997, there were seventy-two women members of the CRA out of a total membership of almost fourteen hundred. This included several in Israel and one in Latin America. By 2004, that number had reached 177, about eleven percent of the total membership. Women’s presence in the rabbinical school has had a dramatic impact on the nature of rabbinic education. According to Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of the rabbinical school, the inclusion of women’s voices on a regular basis has immeasurably enriched the dialectic of traditional study.
The struggle for acceptance of women as cantors took a different course. Since its inception in 1952, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantorial School/College of Jewish Music had accepted women to its degree programs in sacred music; however, only men were eligible to study simultaneously towards a diploma in hazzanut. In 1987, Chancellor Ismar Schorsch announced that the seminary would confer the diploma of hazzan on two women, Marla Barugel and Erica Lippitz. The Cantors Assembly voiced its disapproval and established a Committee of Inquiry to look into the question of admitting women. A resolution to admit women to the Cantors Assembly was defeated in 1988 (95 for, 97 against) and again in 1989 (108 for, 82 against, 2 abstentions) and 1990 (110 for, 68 against) because, although the majority of the assembly had turned in favor of admission, the resolution failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote. Women were finally admitted in December 1990 as a result of a decision by the executive council of the assembly. In 1997, 38 of the 476 current members of the Cantors Assembly were women (about eight percent); today women make up half of the student body in the Cantorial School.; The Roth Teshuvah guided the seminary synagogue until 1995, when Chancellor Schorsch announced that in the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue the principle of full egalitarianism would be decisive in granting women religious status equal to that of men. Some students have agitated for liturgical change as well, challenging the Conservative Movement to address issues of sexism and patriarchy in the liturgy. The Women’s League Seminary Synagogue, for example, now permits the inclusion of the Matriarchs along with the patriarchs in daily prayer at the discretion of the prayer leader.
After two decades in the rabbinate, women have begun to have an impact on the Conservative Movement. They occupy a number of pulpits throughout the United States and even in Israel, though women, even more than their male counterparts, have chosen many diverse career options within the rabbinate. According to Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the CRA, there has been an increasing acceptance of women as rabbinic leaders by Conservative congregations. He maintained that the nature and challenges of rabbinic leadership are essentially the same for all rabbis, but that women are generally more concerned about quality-of-life issues in terms of their families and private lives, and are more likely to make adjustments in their careers for the sake of those concerns. Given the seniority system in terms of placement, women began to become eligible for positions in large congregations only in the 1990s. Debra Newman Kamin was the first woman to serve as senior rabbi of a major Conservative congregation, Am Yisrael, in Northfield, Illinois (1995).
All of these issues came to the fore in August 2004, when the RCA released the results of a survey they had commissioned of women in the Conservative rabbinate, entitled “Gender Variation in the Careers of Conservative Rabbis: A Survey of Rabbis Ordained Since 1985.” The survey found that women rabbis were paid less and occupied far fewer senior or full-time positions: Eighty-three percent of women pulpit rabbis surveyed led congregations of fewer than two hundred and fifty families, seventeen percent led congregations of 250–499 families, and none led congregations larger than five hundred families. Conversely, nearly all—ninety-one percent—declared themselves to be uninterested in holding a senior rabbinical post at a large congregation. But the movement is now committed to ensuring that those women who do want to lead large congregations will have the opportunity to do so. “Equality of opportunity is an imperative. It’s really a matter of justice,” said Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi, who is now co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction in northern California and a member of the study’s advisory committee.
The survey also discovered “very unusual family patterns among female Conservative rabbis,” noting that female rabbis were three times more likely to be single than their male counterparts, with a total of fifty-eight percent of those surveyed found to be either single or childless. But many women in the Conservative rabbinate were not surprised. “A single woman rabbi dating is a difficult thing,” Eilberg said. “There are men who are threatened by the image, threatened by the leadership level, uninterested in the level of commitment and obligation that might go with being married to a woman rabbi.” Some theorize that Conservative women rabbis may be caught in a “catch-22”: like the Conservative rabbinate in general, they are likely to be more observant than their congregants, and so seek mates who share their high level of observance, but who are not so traditional that they reject egalitarianism—or the possibility of marrying a woman rabbi.
In 2005, twenty years after the first woman was ordained as a Conservative rabbi, a New Jersey congregation chose Rabbi Francine Roston as their new spiritual leader, marking the first time a woman would serve as senior rabbi in a Conservative synagogue of more than five hundred families.
Since 1986, the vast majority of Conservative synagogues have accorded women partial or full equality in religious services, although the official position of the Conservative Movement is to endorse both egalitarian and nonegalitarian services, and both options continue to be offered at the seminary, Camp Ramah and United Synagogue events. There is a sense of women coming of age religiously, entering the mainstream of public Jewish religious life. Ceremonies for the naming of baby girls, performed in an ad hoc, experimental way by individual families for a generation, have now begun to enter the mainstream with the publication of the National Women’s League’s Simhat-Bat: Ceremonies to Welcome a Baby Girl (1994). It is no longer odd to see women reading Torah or donning Jewish religious garb for prayer. During the past twenty-five years, small numbers of Conservative women have begun to wear tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). Some women prefer the traditional wool tallit with its black and white stripes, while others opt for more eclectic colors, fabrics and shapes. Some women wear kippot (skullcaps), but creative head coverings that conform to the shape of women’s hair have also been developed in response to the growing demand. Boys and girls in the Conservative movement now receive the same Jewish education, empowering women with the Jewish knowledge necessary to become equal and active participants in synagogue services and other elements of religious life. The vast majority (approximately 80% in 1995–96) of Conservative congregations in the United States (levels in Canada tend to be lower) now count women in a minyan, have women lead the services and read the Torah, and have had women serve as president of the congregation. Eighty-five percent of Conservative Jews favor complete religious equality in the synagogue. Though egalitarianism has not been universally embraced by the Conservative Movement, it is now the dominant position.
Certain Jewish legal issues have not yet been resolved, the most notable being the inadmissibility of women as witnesses in Jewish legal matters. There is also great lack of uniformity on many of the changes that have been introduced. But the involvement of women rabbis in the law committee has begun to influence its decisions on many issues, including appropriate mourning rituals for women suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth. Taken as a whole, then, the Conservative Movement has made great strides during the twentieth century in positioning itself as committed both to Jewish law and to gender equality with respect to equality of education and of opportunity, and it has emerged both strengthened and more sharply focused as a result of this challenge.
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How to cite this page
Schwartz, Shuly Rubin. "Conservative Judaism in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/conservative-judaism-in-united-states>.