At the turn of the twentieth century, a young girl from Pensacola, Florida, named Paula Herskovitz dreamed of one day becoming a medical doctor. Believing that the medical profession was unsuitable for women, her father insisted that she abandon her dream. Yet decades later, she embarked upon a career he no doubt would have found equally unsuitable: she became a spiritual leader.
Scholars have conventionally considered the nineteenth century the German era in the American Jewish history. Between 1820 and 1880, more than two hundred thousand immigrants from German lands arrived in the United States. Besides German Jews, this transatlantic movement also included migrants from ethnically Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Baltic territories that at that time remained under German political control or cultural influence.
Jewish women assimilating into a changing American society across the twentieth century navigated often conflicting gender roles. As they strove to achieve upward social mobility, they adapted Jewish assumptions of what women, especially married women, should do to accommodate American norms for middle class women. Their collective accomplishments registered in political activism, organizational creativity, strong support for feminism, religious innovation, and educational achievement in the face of antisemitism, stereotypes, and denigration.
Since the beginning of British colonialization of New South Wales in 1788, when between eight and fifteen Jews were among the convicts who arrived with the First Fleet, several waves of immigration have brought the Jewish population up to its present size.
Lizzie Spiegel Barbe represents the “Jewish Clubwomen” of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. Like other “Jewish clubwomen” of this era, Barbe was motivated to establish leadership roles for women within the organized Jewish community such as had previously not existed. All of Barbe’s communal work focused on the Jewish sphere, and she is remembered for her lifelong commitment to the Chicago Jewish community.
The bat mitzvah ritual was introduced into American Judaism as both an ethical and a pragmatic response to gender divisions in traditional Judaism.
Though debate continues regarding the female cantorial profession, women’s voices increasingly come forth from pulpits in America, leading congregations in all the year-round calendar and life-cycle observances of the Jewish faith.
Helen Miller Dalsheimer was a distinguished leader in the Jewish community, both nationally and in her native Baltimore. She had a distinguished career as a volunteer whose contributions helped bring women, both volunteers and professionals, into positions of leadership previously occupied only by men.
A deeply religious feminist, Annette Daum dedicated her life to two causes: interfaith dialogue and feminism. Among other leadership positions, she coordinated interreligious affairs at the Union of American Hebrew congregations, edited the journal Interreligious Currents, and organized various task forces focused on gender equality and Jewish-Christian feminist dialogue.
The secular and religious education of Jewish girls in America has very modest roots. Initially perceived as seamlessly bound together, over the course of nearly three and a half centuries, the general and Jewish education of Jewish girls took separate paths, which crossed and on occasion entered into conflict with each other. Secular education of Jewish girls has consistently expanded, but the path of Jewish education has been inconsistent.
Two causes absorbed most of Freiberg’s energy: helping the arts flourish in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and furthering the growth of Reform Judaism—and the role of women in it—in the United States and Western Europe.
Like many of his contemporary German-Jewish theologians, Abraham Geiger (1810–1874), the leading theorist and intellectual founder of the Jewish Reform movement, was nurtured in a traditional religious home and schooled in the classic rabbinic texts as a young child.
Among the few women rabbis ordained during the 1970s Laura Geller has been most prominent in shaping the impact of female religious leadership upon Judaism.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania and educated at Brandeis University (B.A. summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1978) and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (M.H.L. followed by ordination in 1983). As a student, she served at Beth Or, a synagogue for the deaf in the New York City area, and she remains committed to Jewish education for the deaf. Her first rabbinic positions were as assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and rabbi of Temple Beth David in Canton, Massachusetts. She is one of many Canadian Jewish professionals born and/or trained in the United States. In the somewhat more conservative Canadian Jewish community, where synagogue egalitarianism has developed much more slowly than in the United States, she has been a path breaker.
In 1973, in her nineties, Sidonie Matzner Gruenberg declared that her eighties had been the best decade of her life. She had published the revised edition of her monumental four-volume The New Illustrated Encyclopedia of Child Care and Guidance (1967) and had earned more money than in any previous decade.
Reina Goldstein Hartmann focused her career on improving the lives of Jewish women in her native Chicago, serving as the leader of the Mothers Aid of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital and Dispensary as well as other organizations.
Challenging all varieties of American Judaism, feminism has been a powerful force for popular Jewish religious revival. Of America’s four Jewish denominations, all but the Orthodox have accepted women as rabbis and cantors.
In 1982, when she retired from the presidency of Kessler International Corporation, Lillian Kessler prepared a brochure listing the principal export items of the company she had founded in 1946. The list included abrasives, adhesives, locomotive parts, chemicals, navigational and meteorological instruments, tank and jeep bearings, crankshaft and camshaft grinders, and many other automotive parts.
Rose Kohler was a multitalented woman who was known as an accomplished painter and sculptor. She was a teacher in, and later the chair of, the National Council of Jewish Women’s religious schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, and wrote many articles on art and religion.
Since the late twentieth century women have begun to assume leadership positions that are undoubtedly “religious” in both content and form. Religious leaders, like any other leaders, guide their followers towards achieving goals and purposes, and can do so by influencing their followers’ motivation. Religious leaders guide their followers towards religious goals and derive their authority to do so from the strength of their own religious characteristics. What therefore distinguishes them from secular leaders is that even in democratic societies their authority does not emanate solely from the public, but also from a religious source—in the case of Judaism, the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah. Hence, a crucial criterion for religious leadership in the world of Jewry is “knowledge of the Torah,” by which is meant the ability to refer to the canonical texts in an unmediated manner.
In 1951, the New York–based Society of Jewish Science published a small pamphlet entitled “What to Tell your Friends About Jewish Science.” Written by the society’s leader, Tehilla Lichtenstein, the pamphlet sought to clarify the differences between the religions of Jewish Science and Christian Science. Portraying Christian Science as the outgrowth of a Christian philosophy of denial, Lichtenstein defined Jewish Science as the positive application of Jewish teachings to everyday life. She elaborated on this idea in over five hundred sermons delivered between 1938 and 1972, becoming the first Jewish American woman to serve as the spiritual leader of an ongoing Jewish congregation. While the society, which continues to exist, never sought formal affiliation with any of American Judaism’s major religious movements, it retains strong historical and theological ties to classical Reform Judaism.
Lilian Helen Montagu was a British social worker, a magistrate in the London juvenile courts, suffragist, writer, religious organizer, and spiritual leader who founded and long remained the driving force behind the Liberal Jewish movement in England.
In 1913, the women of Reform Judaism, who were organized in independent, local synagogue sisterhoods founded in the 1890s and 1900s, united to create a national organization of women dedicated to religion. Reform Jewish women joined the American women of the era who established a host of voluntary associations to further various social and communal agendas.