Episode 72: Ezrat Nashim Confronts the Rabbis
[Theme music plays]
Nahanni: Hi! It’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet.
Dina: All of us had unbelievable chutzpah. I mean, we were these 20-something- year-olds and we all thought that we were gonna make a world of a difference.
Nahanni: Fifty years ago this month, a group of young Jewish women crashed the annual meeting of the all-male Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement of Judaism. They had a set of demands that were radical for the time:
Leora: It is time that women be granted membership in synagogues.
Dina: …women be counted in the minyan.
Martha: …women be allowed full participation in religious observances: aliyot, ba’alot kriyah, shlichot tzibur.
Leora: …women be recognized as witnesses before Jewish law. [fade]
Nahanni: The group was called Ezrat Nashim. Its members were tired of being sidelined in male-dominated Jewish communities—even counter-cultural ones like the New York Havurah, a study and prayer group where the founders of Ezrat Nashim met.
Dina: …women be allowed to initiate divorce.
Martha: …women be permitted and encouraged to attend rabbinic and cantorial schools and to perform rabbinical and cantorial functions in synagogues.
Leora: …women be encouraged to join decision-making bodies and to assume professional leadership roles in synagogues and in the general Jewish community.
Dina: …women be considered as bound to fulfill all mitzvot equally with men.
Martha: For 3,000 years, one-half of the Jewish people have been excluded from full participation in Jewish communal life. We call for an end to the second-class status of women in Jewish life.
Leora: Signed, Ezrat Nashim.
Nahanni: 1972 was the year the first woman rabbi was ordained in America, but in most congregations, women had little to no access to leadership roles or participation in Jewish rituals. This time on Can We Talk?, the story of Ezrat Nashim’s fight for women’s equality in the Conservative movement. It’s the second in our three-part anniversary series—check out the first in the series, the 100th anniversary of Judith Kaplan’s groundbreaking bat mitzvah.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ezrat Nashim’s action, Judith Rosenbaum spoke with three of the women who were involved.
Martha: This is Martha Ackelsberg. I came to Ezrat Nashim as a member of the, New York Havurah.
Judith: How old were you at the time?
Martha: I was 25.
Dina: Hi, I'm Dina Rosenfeld and I came to Ezrat Nashim through the New York Havurah also and I was 22.
Leora: Hi, I'm Leora Fishman. I was 18 when I joined Ezrat Nashim, uh, just starting my sophomore year in college.
Nahanni: Judith Rosenbaum has a personal connection to this story, too. Her mother, the Jewish feminist scholar Paula Hyman, was part of Ezrat Nashim. Paula Hyman died in 2011; we dedicate this episode to her.
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Judith: So, it’s wonderful to have you all here. I remember you all meeting regularly throughout my childhood, and I knew you were so important to my mom as friends and co-conspirators! I have so many sweet memories of falling asleep and hearing you all talking and laughing and eating in the living room of our apartment…But of course, as a child, I had no sense of the historic nature of Ezrat Nashim. I know that you all met in the early 1970s at the New York Havurah. You were all deeply involved in Jewish life and in the women’s movement. Let’s start with the beginning. How did you each come to this group that became Ezrat Nashim?
Martha: Who's gonna go first?
Dina: Martha, you should go.
Martha: Alright, I'll start. So, what became Ezrat Nashim started, uh, early in the fall of 1971. I had joined the New York Havurah and on one particular Shabbat morning, I think Dina and I were the only women who were there. And, um, we were davening and we came to Nishmat, and one of them who was there, uh, he said, “This has always been one of my favorite prayers, because it names all the different parts of the body and it builds up to this incredible thing, and then at the moment of ejaculation”—something, I have no memory of what he said after that.
Shortly thereafter, Dina and I ended up in a room next door, realizing that we had felt totally invisible at that moment and decided we needed to do something about it.
Judith: Dina, do you remember that moment?
Dina: Yes. I just want to add one thing to what Martha was saying is that, in some ways, in organized, sort of conservative synagogues, we expected to be ignored, but here was the New York Havurah, which was really experimental, it was egalitarian, it was looking for new ways of doing ritual. So even in that place, it was still male-centered. So it was especially galling, I think, to find ourselves in that place again.
Of course, obviously all around us feminism was…you know, I was part of consciousness-raising groups and health collectives and so on. So in other words, there were like all of these sort of slow—or not such slow—changes happening all around us, Jewishly and personally, and of course, you know, around the country. So I think all of that very much infused that moment that Martha and I found ourselves in, you know, in the New York Havurah.
Martha: The way the New York Havurah worked was that if people were interested in exploring something, they started a class. So that's why we came up with the idea of this class to study the situation of women in Judaism. And that's what ultimately became Ezrat Nashim.
Judith: How would you define the goals of what you were imagining this class would accomplish? And did you foresee that it would move into action or were you really, when you started, in a mode of, like, this is just something we don't have information on that we need to educate ourselves in or make space for studying?
Leora: This is Leora. I think it started as we need to gird our arguments with more facts. We need to know more about the sources. We knew that, uh, the basis for all the exclusions were rabbinic, and so we needed to know what we were talking about. We needed to be able to be good representatives of our strongly held positions. And we couldn't do that without education. I think we all felt like the status quo just doesn't cut it. We can't do this. We are up in arms. We are upset. But we were trying to be mature about presenting arguments in a more fact-based and sources-based way.
Dina: I remember having so many early conversations of how much, uh, can Judaism change and still be the Judaism we know? So if it changes in ways of having, not just women in it, but let's say having different kinds of midrash and different kinds of songs and different kinds of prayer, how much can we stretch it and still, uh, remember it as being where we came from?
Judith: So the question of authenticity.
Leora: Yes, I remember that.
Judith: So we're having this conversation because March 2022 represents a significant anniversary for Ezrat Nashim, which is 50 years since this big action of crashing the Rabbinical Assembly convention and presenting a kind of manifesto. So, um, I'd love to hear a little bit about how this group that was a study group decided to take this action.
Leora: Martha, why don’t you take it?
Martha: So we had been meeting through the fall of 1971 and at some point, we heard that there was going to be some kind of a gathering in Boston of guys from the sort of broader havurah movement to talk about the future of Judaism. So one of the people who was organizing this was Bill Novak from the New York Havurah. I think we asked him how come no women had been invited and he said, “Oh, it's not a big deal. Basically it's just a bunch of friends and we're getting together for the weekend.”
So, we weren't thrilled with that response. And meanwhile, some people from our study group had been in touch with women in Havurat Shalom and found out that there was some kind of a women's study group there as well.
Judith: Havurat Shalom was a havurah in the Boston area.
Martha: And we asked them if we could, you know, come up for the weekend and have a joint conversation. So a bunch of us went to Boston for the weekend and met with some of those people.
Dina: I remember it sort of more as a consciousness-raising, where the Chavurat Shalom women and the New York Havurah women said, “Yeah, yeah, you know, something has to change, um, given that the alternative structures are equally male-oriented.”
Martha: What I remember was a conversation that I think took place Sunday afternoon, about what to do. And one group of people, particularly, I think, the women from Boston, said, “This is really important. You have to go public, you have to make some kind of, uh, almost like an announcement to the Jewish world that this was going on. And that there needs to be change.”
And some of us—I remember this was the position I took at the beginning— said, “We can't, because we don't yet know what we want.” We had this sense that if women were truly going to be equal, a lot of things would have to change, but we didn't know what that was going to look like. So there was this tension: Should we wait until we figure out what we want or should we ask for equality?
And, you know, the people in favor of doing something now said, basically, “It could take a lifetime to figure out what a new Judaism would look like. We should at least go public with the demand for equality.” And so that's what happened.
We went back to New York. We knew that the Rabbinical Assembly convention was going to be taking place in March at The Concord. Liz Koltun, who had a relationship with Judah Nadich, who was the head of the RA at that point, wrote a letter on our behalf saying, you know, “We are daughters of the Conservative movement. We want to come and make a presentation to the rabbis.” Oh and at that point, we decided on a name. That's when we took on a name.
Judith: Do you want to say a little bit about the choice of Ezrat Nashim as the name and explain it?
Leora: Uh, sure. It was an inspired choice, I have to say. So ezrat nashim, literally, is “help for women,” but the Ezrat Nashim is the section of the synagogue where women were confined. That's where women got to pray, uh, whether it was behind some tall barrier or very often up in the balcony where no one could see them and no one could hear them. So we thought that the irony of calling ourselves Ezrat Nashim was perfect.
Judith: It is a great sort of feminist pun.
Leora: And Martha, you didn’t say…what you didn’t finish up the story about Liz reaching out to Rabbi Nadich was that we were told no, there’s no room for you on the program, the program is set up years in advance, maybe next year.
Martha: Yeah, I mean—and we were pishers. We knew nothing about any of this, and we thought they were blowing us off. So we decided to heck with that. We're not waiting til next year—we'll go anyway. So we got together two carloads of us. Somewhere between eight and ten of us went. We called the New York Times and the New York Post and told them that we were going to go. The Post came and took a picture of us all in Paula's apartment. We Xeroxed the Call for Change and, uh, we just decided we're going to go and present ourselves and see what happens. So that's, you know, we crashed. We crashed the convention. We just showed up.
Dina: All of us had unbelievable chutzpah. We all thought—I mean, we were these 20-something-year-olds and we all thought that we were gonna make a world of a difference. We were going to change the nature of the Jewish community. We were going to change the face of politics. So we—you have to understand that this whole action is within the context of the fact that we really thought in some ways that we were very powerful.
Martha: Right. And in fact we were! We were actually much more powerful than we thought!
Judith: So what happens when you arrive at… The Concord? Is that where you said it was?
Martha: Yeah. So, I mean, what was amazing… Well, first of all, a story in the New York Post came out the day we arrived at The Concord. So people had the paper. And then we show up.
Judith: So they had some advance warning you were coming.
Martha: Well, yeah, a couple hours, I guess. We must've left the city, like at six or seven o'clock in the morning and got up there really early. And they actually were incredibly welcoming to us. They gave us an opportunity to meet with, uh, rabbinic wives and then I think we met, we had a kind of open meeting with the rabbis. They must have been maybe at lunchtime or something like that, but like a hundred rabbis showed up, you know? So they really paid attention to us in a way that—you know, they could've just ignored us, but they didn't.
Judith: So did you meet with the rebbetzins before you met with the rabbis?
Martha: I guess we did.
Judith: So when you get to that room, first of all, how many women are there and what was the response?
Leora: There were a lot of women. I don't remember how many, but in general, I think we got a very positive response
Martha: And I think we should say, you know, there were basically no meaningful activities for women otherwise at the RA convention. They were there as wives—they could have gone on shopping trips or flower arranging.
Dina: They had a fashion show I think, didn’t they?
Martha: Yeah, I mean, stuff like that. It was, you know, appalling. Anyway, at the end of our, uh, meeting–
Judith: What was the content of what you did with them?
Leora: We talked more on a personal, emotional level about what it felt like to us to be excluded.
Martha: What I remember most from that meeting was that toward the end of the conversation, a woman stood up — and this is, you know, my ageist perspective at the time, I described her to friends as this little old lady, I had no idea who she was—and she said, “What I want to know…what I want to know is… where have you been all these years??”
It was amazing. It was amazing. It turned out it was Adele Ginsberg, uh, the wife of H.L. Ginsberg, a professor at the seminary and a Biblical scholar. And that was amazing for us, to have that kind of positive response. You know, in our worldview, we thought, oh, old ladies, you know, they're going to be conservative and opposed to change and all that. Now of course, we're probably older than she was at the time, but…
Judith: But it turns out they were waiting for you to show up and shake things up.
Judith: So say a little bit about the meeting with the rabbis and what their response was.
Martha: So my recollection is that there was a lot of positive response and a lot of these guys said they were going to take the Call for Change back to their community and tell their women congregants about it. But at least some of them made the type of argument that it was going to completely upend gender roles and therefore the future stability of Judaism, if women started doing this stuff that was traditionally men's arena. Um, so there was a little bit of a debate. But I think overall there was a lot of positive response.
Dina: It seems to me, also, there was a certain amount of pride. I mean, how could you not be proud of this group of young women who, what they want is more involvement? What they want is more tradition, what they want is more membership? And it was all nurtured through the fine education that your movement has given, you know, these young women.
Judith: Right. They’ve done something right if these people are showing up and wanting to be involved.
Dina: Exactly, exactly. And wanting more—they want more.
Judith: And then what happens, actually? You meet with the rabbis, you have this conversation with them. You give them the Call for Change, there's some debate. What happens afterwards?
Martha: Ah, that was the other funny thing. So, immediately after, there was a blizzard, and, um, they wouldn't let us leave. They said, “It's dangerous for you to drive back. We're going to put you up overnight and you can drive back in the morning.” And we did, they put us up overnight in The Concord. They saw us as their daughters and they were, you know, trying to be careful.
And then we started getting letters from women from all over the country saying, I want to join your organization. And we have to write back to them and say, we’re not a membership organization, we’re a study group. And you know, whatever, start something in your congregation.
Judith: But so that means that the rabbis made good on their promise to distribute the call within their communities.
Judith: That’s interesting. So where did Ezrat Nashim go after this? I mean, I know you continued to meet weekly for years, because I would see you gathered in my family’s apartment, but what was the purpose of those meetings? Did you continue to study? Did you move into other kinds of action?
Leora: Well, one thing that sticks in my mind was that probably the next, or maybe it was two Simchat Torahs later, there was the first, I believe the first, Orthodox women's minyan, uh, so that women could have aliyot on Simchat Torah at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. And a few of us from Ezrat Nashim who knew how to read Torah volunteered to go and read Torah over and over until every woman in that synagogue who wanted an aliyah. It was usually the first time that women had ever seen the inside of a Torah scroll. It was a very powerful experience.
Martha: One of the first things we did was, uh, collect naming ceremonies for girls, which were starting to be created at the time. This was one of the new rituals. And then… and we spoke, you know, all over. We were invited to speak all over the place.
Leora: We had a session where I think we all made tallitot. I, uh, demonstrated how to lay tefillin, which I had to learn how to do in order to teach it. So we were trying to, uh, you know, start doing some of the things that we never would have thought we would have done just a few years earlier.
Dina: We were all invited to various places to speak about this. So I think there was a real interest in the larger Jewish world.
Leora: At synagogues, the women were often very positive. The men were a little bit reluctant. The men rarely were our cheerleaders, but there definitely was, uh, a common thread of opposition, which was, if the women start doing all these things, the men will leave the synagogues, and you have to worry about what will happen to the men. And I remember thinking, why should we have to worry about what happens to the men when we just want our turn? It was, really, the men need something powerful to hold on to. They need to be leaders. And if they're not going to be respected and needed as leaders, they’ll have no reason to continue affiliating. And that was a pretty frightening thought at the time.
Judith: I feel like there's still a lot of attention to that kind of male fragility in Jewish life. I mean, I get those kinds of questions still, and it's never framed as gee, why are men so threatened that they can't show up to places where they're not immediately assumed to be in charge?
Martha: Right. Right. I mean, that was the main pushback we got from the rabbis, when we met with the rabbis.
Judith: So, the Call for Change that you wrote and shared at the RA asked for women to be counted as official members of synagogues, for women to be admitted to rabbinical school—and ordained as rabbis—for women to participate fully in Jewish ritual life, like being called to the Torah, counted in the minyan, serving as witnesses. What do you think, 50 years later, looking back at those demands?
Martha: When we put this together, this was…what would you call it? An aspirational document. We didn't really fully expect that we would achieve any of this, really, in our lifetime. So in a sense, it's astounding how much has changed. When I spoke a couple of years ago, people could not believe that women were not members of synagogues before. I mean, some part of our history already has been completely lost, which in some ways is nice. And in other ways, if you don't realize how much has changed, you don't realize that things could change back.
Judith: And you lose the story of how change happens, and that hampers your ability to make further changes in the future.
Martha: Exactly. Well put.
Leora: I think that, uh, the fact that change happened so relatively quickly—I mean, it did take what, another 13, 14 years for women to be ordained in the Conservative movement, but just after Ezrat Nashim started as a study group, the first woman Reform rabbi was ordained, and very soon thereafter, the first Reconstructionist rabbi.
The airwaves were full of change coming for women. And, uh, it's to the credit of every movement other than Orthodoxy—which we can understand why, by their very nature—that the change happened as quickly as it did, given that all the people in power were men.
Judith: How do you feel about having been pioneers in Jewish feminism? Like, is that an important piece of your identity?
Leora: Uh, it is for me. Even though my professional life took off in a totally different way…you know, I've been leading services and reading Torah for decades now. So it's something that I take for granted now that, uh, you know, 50 years ago was a dream.
Martha: I don't necessarily think of myself as a Jewish feminist pioneer, although, I mean, I suppose we all were. We were in the world at a time when a lot of change was happening. And we were empowered by one another to do what just felt like what needed to be done.
Judith: From my perspective, certainly not only as a historian, but also as a second-generation Jewish feminist and a daughter of the movements that you founded, I feel an incredible gratitude and sense of, um, blessing, really, that for me, Jewish feminism has always been just part of my birthright. It was absolutely at the center of my Jewish life. And so it was what I was born into. And when we talked earlier about authenticity and, um, that struggle to make changes that also feel authentic…there's nothing more authentic than something you're born into. And so for me, that's just been an incredible gift. So I want to thank you.
Martha: It's incredibly gratifying, um, validating for us to see you carrying this on, and knowing that this work is continuing, um, beyond what we could even have imagined.
Nahanni: Fifty years ago, Martha Ackelsberg, Leora Fishman, and Dina Rosenfeld helped bring Jewish feminism into the mainstream of Jewish life. Their demands for access opened the door for women to transform Jewish communities through new rituals, liturgy, theology, and leadership.
Just a few months after Ezrat Nashim crashed the Rabbinical Assembly, Sally Priesand shattered the stained glass ceiling and became the first woman rabbi in America. Join us next time for the third in our anniversary series, the 50th anniversary of women in the rabbinate.
Register to join JWA’s online history course on this topic. The final session is Thursday, March 31, at 8 pm Eastern, with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl in conversation with Judith Rosenbaum. When you register, you’ll get access to the recordings of the three previous sessions.
Thank you for listening to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode was produced by Jen Richler, Judith Rosenbaum, and me. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Find us online at jwa.org/canwetalk, or anywhere you get your podcasts.
I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Until next time!
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 72: Ezrat Nashim Confronts the Rabbis." (Viewed on March 24, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-72-ezrat-nashim-confronts-rabbis>.