Paula Ackerman took over leadership of her husband’s synagogue after his death in 1950, when the congregation insisted on her appointment. For the next three years, Ackerman was the first woman to serve as religious leader of a mainstream American congregation, helping to pave the way for the ordination of women rabbis twenty years later.
Agunot are women who are unable to obtain a rabbinic divorce because their husbands or husbands’ male next of kin are unable to give one, leaving them chained in marital captivity. Although many efforts have been made to address these problems, for those most part agunot in halakhically observant communities continue to face deep-seated challenges.
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.
The first Jewish women, like the first Jewish men, arrived in Australia on the very first day of European settlement in 1788. Those convict pioneers were followed by free settlers who made Jewish communal and congregational life viable and helped to develop the vast continent. Jewish women have made significant contributions to Australia's national story.
Lizzie Spiegel Barbe, a member of a prominent Chicago family, devoted more than fifty years of her life to being a clubwoman and leader within the Chicago Jewish community. Like other “Jewish Clubwomen” of this era, Barbe was motivated to establish leadership roles for women that had previous not existed within the organized Jewish community.
When Judith Kaplan Eisenstein became the first American girl to mark her bat mitzvah on March 18, 1922—two years after women were guaranteed the right to vote in the US—she recalled “shock[ing] a lot of people,” especially her disapproving grandmothers. Today, American girls across the Jewish spectrum, from secular to ultra-Orthodox, mark their coming-of-age in various forms.
Angela Warnick Buchdahl is the first Asian American to be ordained as a rabbi and cantor. She is the senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York and is a major leader in American Judaism’s continued work on diversity, equity, inclusion, and innovation.
Women’s vocal leadership in synagogue music began with zogerin (women prayer leaders) in the women’s gallery. In the nineteenth century, women began participating in mixed choral and community singing, and some opera singers acted as cantors in important Reform congregations. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Reform and Conservative movements began formally investing women as cantors, and today a plurality of cantors in liberal movements are women.
Helen Miller Dalsheimer was a leader in the Jewish community, both nationally and in her native Baltimore. She had a distinguished career as a volunteer, helping lead organizations such as the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods and the Women’s Hospital of Baltimore.
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.
American Jewish girls have had access to a broad range of educational opportunities. Pioneering innovations such as the Hebrew Sunday school opened doors to religious education, while in public schools, training schools, and the hallways of higher education, American Jewish girls pursued secular studies as well. Today, the landscape for American Jewish education has expanded beyond the classroom to include a range of experiential educational opportunities.
Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the nineteenth century. He was one of the major intellectual leaders and founders of the Reform movement in Germany and a strong supporter of Jews entering European society. As part of his vision of Judaism, he argued for a Judaism oriented around the home and domestic life, but also a Judaism that both elevated and sidelined the women that had long created that domestic life.
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. The accomplishments of Jewish feminists have transformed American Jewish life, even as the ultimate goal of gender equity and shared power has yet to be fully realized.