Reform Judaism in the United States

by Karla Goldman

Leaders of Reform Judaism in the United States have often celebrated their movement’s role in emancipating women from the many restrictions that Judaism has traditionally imposed upon their ability to participate and lead public worship. Although Reform thinkers in Germany made the case for women’s equality in Judaism and the abolition of anachronistic laws and customs that stifled the public expression of women’s religiosity, it was only in the United States that practical innovations adopted by the Reform Movement actively redefined the nature of women’s participation in public worship. Chief among Reform Judaism’s liberating innovations have been the abolition of a separate women’s gallery within the synagogue in the 1850s and the ordination of the first American female rabbi in 1972. Reform congregations have also provided important sites for Jewish women to work out the tensions between evolving societal expectations for women and the roles identified with traditional Jewish practice.

Many innovations common in early American synagogues helped to redefine women’s place in Jewish worship even before the emergence of a formal Reform movement. American synagogue builders had, for the most part, done away with the partition barriers that kept women out of sight, in traditional women’s galleries. Many congregations employed choirs of mixed male and female voices, challenging the usual Orthodox prohibitions against allowing women’s voices to be heard within worship services. In addition, the introduction of confirmation services in many Jewish congregations signified, in part, an effort to solemnize the Jewish education and identity of girls as well as boys.


Family pews, the innovation connected with women’s status most explicitly identified with the nineteenth-century Reform Movement, may have arisen as a matter of convenience. When Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s Anshe Emeth Congregation in Albany occupied a church building in 1851 and when New York’s Temple Emanu-El bought a former church in 1854, both congregations determined that rather than build new galleries, they would seat men and women together in the pews that had been used by the churches. The prominence of Temple Emanu-El’s Reform program and of its elite congregants helped place family pews on the Reform agenda.

With Reform’s emergence as the dominant tendency among America’s acculturating Jews in the 1860s and 1870s, the family pew became a requisite feature of the imposing temples and synagogues added to the post–Civil War urban landscape. Offered a place in the sanctuary, Jewish women continued a trend that had marked early nineteenth-century American synagogues. In a departure from the traditional pattern of synagogue worship, women quickly came to dominate attendance at weekly Sabbath services. Women’s access to the sanctuary floor, however, came at a moment when the content of congregational participation had been radically redefined. The Judaism championed by American Reformers placed the rabbi or service reader in a prominent elevated location at the front of the congregation. Women did not need more Jewish education to participate in Reform services that were premised upon the limited knowledge and involvement of all the congregants.

Although Reform leaders often celebrated their introduction of the family pew in bringing gender equality to Jewish religious life, the second half of the nineteenth century brought mixed results in forwarding the public position of women in America’s Reform congregations. Although Jewish women’s attendance patterns may have emulated the pew dominance of American Christian women, mid-nineteenth-century Jewish women did not participate in the explosion of voluntary and organizational activity identified with women in Protestant churches of the same era. The Reform synagogue’s emphasis upon worship undermined the existence of the many synagogue-affiliated groups, like female benevolent societies, which had earlier been part of broadly defined synagogue communities. As the purposes of the congregation narrowed to the limited sphere of worship, women found little to do except sit and listen quietly. Those active synagogue affiliations that remained—spiritual leadership and lay governance—were exclusively in male hands.


Formal organization of the Reform Movement grew from the founding of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) in 1872 and Hebrew Union College (HUC) in 1875. Women contributed some money, but otherwise played little role in these institutional developments. Although HUC president Isaac Mayer Wise had often called for the creation of a “female theological seminary,” nothing along these lines ever emerged. A few female students did enroll at the early Hebrew Union College, but none advanced very far in their studies.

One area in which women continued to expand their involvement in synagogue life was in congregational religious schools, in which they often served as teachers and supporters. But even in these settings, women were often explicitly excluded from leadership roles and could not serve on the congregational boards overseeing the schools. Late nineteenth-century Reform congregations rejected the exclusively male Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah, adopting the confirmation ritual observed on Lit. "weeks." A one-day festival (two days outside Israel) held on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (50 days, or 7 complete weeks, from the first day of Passover) to commemorate the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai; Pentecost; "Festival of the First Fruits"; "Festival of the Giving of the Torah"; Azeret (solemn assembly).Shavuot as the primary adolescent rite of passage, thus hoping to demonstrate their regard for the religious education of girls. During confirmation services, girls, together with boys, offered prayers and speeches, and testified to their learning and commitment.

It was not until the late 1880s that new structures emerged to absorb the latent energies of the women within Reform congregations. The first Jewish Sisterhood of Personal Service organized by Rabbi Gustav Gottheil of New York’s Reform Temple Emanu-El provided the prototype for a women’s organization that was quickly emulated in Jewish congregations throughout the country. At first, these groups of Americanized Jewish women focused their energies on the impoverished Eastern European Jewish multitudes lately arrived in the United States. As numerous organizations emerged around the turn of the century to tend to the needs of these immigrants and as the professionalization of social work displaced “lady visitors” in immigrant work, women’s synagogue organizations often turned their now-organized energies back to their own communities. Women’s groups offered services in whatever ways congregations would allow them to participate, often in areas such as schools and temple decoration. The expansion of women’s energies in this direction was also facilitated by attempts to expand the ambit of the synagogue beyond the narrow worship-centered sanctuary of early Reformers. The massive temple edifices built in the early twentieth century hosted a broad range of community-oriented activities.

Congregational governance structures yielded slowly to women’s participation. A few Reform congregations responded to calls from the National Council of Jewish Women in the 1890s to open up the category of synagogue membership to women who were not widows of deceased members. Yet, for the most part, the call to grant women access to both membership and positions on congregational boards met stony resistance. It was not until the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1920, granting female suffrage, that most Reform congregations offered formal membership to women who were not widows or who were unmarried, and began to invite sisterhood presidents to serve on congregational lay leadership boards.

Women affiliated with the Reform Movement were first organized into a national movement in 1913 when the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS) was formed at a special meeting of 156 representatives from fifty-two congregations, held in conjunction with the UAHC meeting held in Cincinnati. The moving forces behind creation of the NFTS were Rabbi George Zepin of the UAHC and Carrie Simon, a civic leader who was the wife of a Washington, D.C., rabbi. Simon served as the organization’s founding president and Zepin as its executive secretary. Organization of the NFTS at a national level prompted many congregations that had not yet created women’s membership organizations to found local synagogue sisterhoods. Once founded, these groups encouraged thousands of women to focus their energies on congregational life.

In the interwar years, sisterhood members elaborated their congregational roles, assuming responsibility for a wide range of temple, school, and communal activities, as well as for certain liturgical events. Sisterhoods organized community seders and summer services. At annual sisterhood Sabbaths, women took public pulpit roles, delivering sermons and often conducting the services themselves. On a national level, NFTS took a leading role in supporting the movement’s rabbinic school, raising student scholarships, and supplying funds to build the Sisterhood Dormitory in Cincinnati. NFTS was also instrumental in founding the National Braille Institute and the National Federation of Temple Youth.


The presence, contributions, energy, and activities that women brought to the Reform Movement, nationally and locally, contributed to growing expectations that women should be recognized as full participants in the work of Reform Judaism. Through the sisterhood, women were beginning to have a say in both local synagogue governance and the national movement. The growth of a cadre of local and national sisterhood leaders, together with the logic implicit in the woman suffrage amendment, confronted Reform leaders with the question of female religious leadership.

In 1922, facing the possibility that Martha Neumark, a female student at Hebrew Union College, might continue her studies and become a candidate for ordination, HUC’s board of governors and faculty and the Reform Movement’s federation of rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), all took up the question of whether to approve, in principle, the ordination of female rabbis. Some traditionalist-leaning members of the HUC faculty expressed misgivings as to whether the Reform Movement, in ordaining women, would irreparably sunder itself from the other movements in Judaism. Nonetheless, the faculty unanimously agreed that this innovation was consistent with the inclusive and progressive tenets of the Reform Movement and was equivalent to other major breaks with tradition accepted by the movement. Consideration of the issue at the 1922 CCAR convention was especially noteworthy for the decision of the delegates to include female members of the audience, mainly wives of the rabbis in attendance, in the discussion. Although the faculty and the CCAR both voted to support the proposed change, HUC’s board of governors, which had to make the final decision, ultimately rejected the proposal.

The question of whether women should serve as rabbis lay dormant over the next few decades as the energy and creativity of women within the movement provided their communities with a rich congregational life. During World War II, as had been the case during World War I, many women looked to the sisterhood to formalize their contribution to the war effort. They knitted, crocheted, baked cookies, organized blood banks, sold bonds, conducted first-aid classes, and resettled Jewish refugees, all under the auspices of their congregational sisterhoods. Continued postwar growth in synagogue activity reflected a nationwide return to religion that enlivened both churches and synagogues through the 1950s. As synagogue organizational life flourished, sisterhoods were critical in sustaining synagogue life in older congregations and in creating new frameworks for community as old and new congregations found their way to the suburbs.

The confirmation service, with its egalitarian commitment to Jewish education for both boys and girls, had been an early aspect of the Reform Movement’s agenda. As the Lit. "son of the commandment." A boy who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbar mitzvah ceremony regained popularity in Reform congregations after World War I, however, confirmation ceremonies became increasingly a province for girls alone. The feminization of the group confirmation service, together with the bar mitzvah ceremony’s emphasis on individual Jewish ritual skills and obligations, highlighted the gender inequity within Jewish worship that confirmation was meant to neutralize. The first Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah ceremony, as a female counterpart to the bar mitzvah, was introduced by Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, for his daughter Judith Kaplan (Eisenstein) in 1922. The bat mitzvah ceremony slowly took root within the Conservative Movement in the 1930s and 1940s. The Reform Movement’s commitment to the confirmation rite, however, slowed acceptance of the bat mitzvah in Reform temples. Bat mitzvah ceremonies began to appear in Reform congregations in the 1950s and made more general progress in the 1960s. Varying in format, a Reform bat mitzvah was often celebrated with a reading of the haftarah on Friday night rather than with the standard bar mitzvah Saturday morning Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah service. By the early 1970s, a Saturday morning bat mitzvah service, identical in its requirements with the ceremony held for boys, was in place in most Reform congregations.

In the years surrounding the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), the rhetoric of gender egalitarianism and equality of opportunity became more familiar in the broader culture. The idea of sustaining distinctive rituals to mark the religious obligations and duties of boys and girls, or of men and women, within Judaism became untenable. No one within the Reform Movement questioned the decision of Meridian, Mississippi’s Reform congregation to appoint the widow of their deceased rabbi to serve as the community’s spiritual leader from 1951 to 1953. In 1956, the CCAR’s Barnett Brickner asked the CCAR to declare a commitment to the principle of female ordination. Although his proposal received general approval, the question was “laid on the table” until those with opposing views could present their case—or, as it turned out, indefinitely. In 1963, the women of the NFTS reflected shifting cultural currents and renewed attention to questions of women’s equality by again requesting the governing (male) bodies of Reform Judaism to take up the question of women’s ordination.

Ultimately, the issue was resolved without grand statements from the movement’s organizing bodies. As Sally Priesand advanced through the course of study at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC–JIR) in Cincinnati, the question was no longer one of abstract commitments but of practical realities. HUC–JIR president Nelson Glueck made clear that he would ordain a female candidate when the opportunity arose. Following Glueck’s death in 1971, the honor of ordaining America’s first female rabbi devolved upon Alfred Gottschalk, Glueck’s successor as president of HUC–JIR. The Reform Movement’s accomplishment was soon followed by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which ordained Sandy Eisenberg Sasso as its first female rabbi in 1974. The Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary did not ordain a woman, Amy Eilberg, as rabbi until 1985.

The ordination of Sally Priesand was seen by some as the ultimate realization of women’s religious equality by the Reform Movement. As additional female colleagues joined in numbers that by the early 1980s approached equity with the number of male ordainees, the movement continued to celebrate its commitment to female religious equality. Indeed, by 2005 at least fifteen women had been appointed to senior rabbinic positions in Reform congregations with a membership of five hundred or more households. They included Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, who in 2001 was chosen to lead the nineteen hundred families of Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (By contrast, 2005 marked the first time a woman attained the senior rabbinic position at a Conservative synagogue of over five hundred families.) In April 2003, Rabbi Janet Marder was elected the first woman president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She also serves as senior rabbi at the 1,300-member Congregation Beth Am of Los Altos Hills, California.

Thus, it seems that the advent of female rabbis had, by the early years of the twenty-first century, addressed the question of women’s equal authority and status within the movement. Still, despite a continuing rhetorical commitment to gender equity, there are frequent instances of women finding their placement or renewal in clergy complicated by concerns about their marital status, childcare responsibilities, sexual orientation, wardrobe, personal appearance, or inability to get along with male supervisors. Women’s rabbinic salaries, moreover, continue to trail those of men. In addition, although the faculty on some campuses of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is beginning to show the presence of more than just one or two female professors, the only HUC-JIR faculty members to be denied tenure since 1963 have been two professors who were each the first woman to be hired to the faculty of their respective campuses. None of these difficulties negates the overall and symbolic progress that women are making within the Reform movement, but they remind us that the journey is not yet over.

Changing societal roles for women have also reshaped congregational life. Although sisterhoods remain important membership organizations, congregational leaders no longer assume that they can draw on the unlimited energies and time of a cadre of talented female volunteers. As a result, much of the responsibility for sustaining a more limited range of congregational activities falls increasingly upon paid (male and female) staff members. Meanwhile, many women now become involved in synagogue life and governance without first rising through the sisterhood. As women take on lay leadership roles that were once monopolized by men, many are wary of the subsidiary role often ascribed to sisterhoods. This same concern was reflected in the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods’ 1993 decision to change its name to Women of Reform Judaism, the Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (WRJ). The change of name reflects a desire to be seen not merely as an ancillary service group but as an organization that puts its members and their interests at the center of the Reform Movement. Although WRJ continues to fulfill many of NFTS’s traditional roles within the movement, current efforts such as campaigns against breast cancer and in areas of social action, as well as sponsorship of a new bible commentary written by women, demonstrate a commitment to redefining the tradition and texts of Jewish life.

As the WRJ’s Torah commentary project suggests, the desire to offer women full access to Judaism is complicated by the indelibly patriarchal sources of Jewish tradition. Gender-inclusive liturgical reform, for example, is slowed by desires to preserve the language of Jewish tradition, worries about how to keep texts familiar to congregants who are poorly educated in Hebrew, and differing perceptions of the extent to which Jewish prayer and practice are formulated as expressions of male religiosity. In 1993, the movement published a “gender-sensitive” liturgy meant to supplement Gates of Prayer, which appeared in 1975. The new edition does not employ male pronouns to refer to God, and it offers gender-neutral English prayers and translations. Changes in the Hebrew text, however, are limited to adding the names of the matriarchs to liturgical references to the patriarchs. In 2006, the Reform movement will publish a new prayerbook, edited by Rabbi Elyse Freedman. It will offer an important measure of the impact of women rabbis and feminist ideas on the Reform movement. The particular adaptations necessary to realize Reform Judaism’s rhetorical commitment to the principle of religious equality for men and women have evolved along with the broader society’s often-confusing mix of expectations of proper gender roles. Contemporary Reform Judaism, the denomination with which the largest percentage (35%) of American Jews identify, struggles with how to redefine notions of rabbinic authority in ways that can do justice to both the men and women who fill rabbinic roles. At the same time, the movement must also accommodate those who believe that there should be a way to sustain distinctive religious roles and responsibilities for men and women. Discrete and significant advances, like the ordination of female rabbis or efforts to demasculinize Jewish prayer, often tend to raise awareness that even more change is necessary. Current efforts to push Reform practice and liturgy to respond to gender concerns often draws upon the creative work of progressive Jews from outside the Reform Movement. Yet, the recognition that a vibrant and relevant Judaism must respond to the challenges raised by the position of women in American life derives from the earliest days and concerns of America’s Reform Movement.


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Dear Rabbi Eric Stark
I'm sorry to disturb
Possible Can I Convert To Be a Woman Reform Judaism ?
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Mary Ruth Anne Rolls

"Healing Service" published by Central Synagogue, a Reform congregation in New York City. Women's spiritual expression has gone beyond seeking equality with men to embrace female-specific forms and contexts.
Institution: Eleanor Leff Jewish Women’s Resource Center (JWRC) of the National Council of Jewish Women, New York Section

How to cite this page

Goldman, Karla. "Reform Judaism in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 15, 2021) <>.


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