Sisterhood Blog

The Many Reasons Why I Am a Feminist Jew

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

This is the sixteenth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I am a feminist Jew because I view being Jewish as a gift, as I do being a woman. Neither should suffer for the sake of the other.

I am a feminist Jew because I believe that Torah is our divinely-inspired central literature, and what binds us as a people.

I am a feminist Jew because I believe that we should all have direct access to Torah in all of its manifestations. We need to be educated in its language to have that access, in which neither gender should be privileged over the other.

I am a feminist Jew because I believe that inclination, ability and drive — not gender — should dictate what a person accomplishes.

I am a feminist Jew because I believe that women have something to contribute to the future of Judaism that includes, but is not limited to, our children and the success of our husbands and partners.

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Why Judaism Needs Feminism

By Danya Ruttenberg

This is the fifteenth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I’m a Jewish feminist for a lot of reasons.

On the one hand, given that feminism is about removing external hindrances to the project of everyone living out their highest, holiest, Divinely-given potential —why wouldn’t I be? There’s still plenty of homophobia, transphobia and sexism in Jewish law, rituals, communities and institutional structures. As such, we still have a lot of work to do to create textual activism, forceful new interpretations, transformative moments, and straight-up institutional change in contemporary Jewish life.

But more than that, I’m a Jewish feminist because I believe that Judaism and feminism absolutely require one another.

As a feminist, my work is nourished by my spiritual practice, and enables me to draw from a Source much deeper and more powerful than my limited self. As a Jew — well, quite naturally, Judaism is enriched by the extraordinary range of perspectives and voices that feminism adds to the ongoing project of receiving the Torah anew. Without them, our religion will wither and die; with them, it can continue to grow and expand, enabling us all to become more moral, more kind, more connected to the sacred, and better able to serve God.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is author of “Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion” (nominated for the Sami Rohr prize), editor of five anthologies, including “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” and “Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism,” and is the senior Jewish educator at Tufts Hillel.

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Looking Forward, Reaching Back

By Carol Ingall

Having recently edited and contributed to a book about women who “reconstructed” American Jewish education, i.e., transplanted Mordecai Kaplan’s views on American Judaism into classrooms, children’s books, camps and women’s organizations, I’ve had to wrestle with the “F” word. Feminism is hard enough to define. What is Jewish feminism?

If feminism is about going where no woman has gone before, or about “tough cookies” who fought for equal pay for equal work, some of these women were surely feminists. Many of you must have seen the TED video featuring Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, urge women to demand a seat at the table. As I watched it, I thought of Sylvia C. Ettenberg, often the sole woman making administrative and educational decisions for the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1950s and ’60s. When, during a break in a heated discussion, her colleagues retreated to the men’s room and solved a problem without her, she told them she’d go in with them if they pulled that stunt again.

If feminism is about access to power, and Jewish knowledge is Jewish power, all of these women featured in my book were Jewish feminists — from the settlement house workers who taught young immigrant women how to be Americans and Jews to Jessie Sampter, who brought Zionism, Jewish history and Hebrew to the first generation of Hadassah leaders to the more recent “pink collar revolutionaries,” who used synagogue gift shops and children’s books to create Jewish as well as American homes.

What I found missing in many of these women (and what was glossed over in Sandberg’s talk) was a responsibility to mentor other women.

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Authentically Egalitarian

By Elie Kaunfer

This is the thirteenth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I am a Jewish feminist because my mom decided to put on a tallit and tefillin when I was 10. I remember that she asked my younger brother and me if we were okay with this decision. After all, she was also our teacher at Jewish day school, and worried that the other kids might make fun of us. But we were supportive — and it seemed to make sense, given my mother’s deep connection to prayer and Jewish ritual. Why should she be denied the same opportunity as the males in the family?

My parents are my religious role models, and they managed to create a home in which no one sacrificed any amount of passion or authenticity by embracing egalitarian values in a religious context. In our house, Jewish feminism wasn’t a rebellion against tradition — it was the logical application of it.

Today, too many people feel the need to make a choice: embrace equal opportunities for men and women or embrace a deep religious practice with Torah and mitzvot at the center.

As a co-founder of an egalitarian minyan and an egalitarian yeshiva, I have tried to normalize the world in which my parents created at home. It is a vision of that world that animates all the work I do.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar. He is the author of “Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities.”

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‘Jewish’ and ‘Feminist’ Don’t Share Borders

By Hanna Rosin

This is the twelfth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

This is embarrassing and something I should never admit because it betrays a lack of commitment to passionate principles and also a resistance to deep thinking. But here it is: “Jewish” and “feminist” exist in two different boxes for me, and I have never managed to get them to share borders. This is not for lack of trying.

I am Jewish, and I am the founder and editor of a woman’s website. In college I read Lilith magazine and I went to the kinds of reformed services where God was sometimes a “she.” (I went to college in California.) I also briefly attended such a synagogue in D.C., where I live now, and participated in a long and earnest discussion about the dual gender nature of the deity.

But ultimately the whole enterprise made me squirm.

I was born in Israel and grew up in Queens. My synagogue there was full of old men and they only spoke Hebrew and never much cared what we, the young people or we, the girls and women, thought about anything. It was a thoroughly unpleasant and unsatisfying spiritual experience, but that’s what we had. Over the years I have tried to move away from it and create myself a more fulfilling, nourishing kind of Judaism. But the truth is, it makes me uncomfortable.

I realized in recent years that what I want from my Judaism is ritual — old, familiar, and some might say thoughtless ritual. I like to say the prayers the same way I have always said them, sing the songs in the same old tuneless way and make my kids go to Hebrew school. And in the old version, God is just He.

Hanna Rosin is a founder and editor of Slate’s Double X. Her book “The End of Men: And The Rise of Women” comes out in September. She is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.

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My Feminist Foremothers

By David Ellenson

This is the eleventh entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

My own attachment to Jewish feminism arose from my relationship to the women in my family — my grandmothers, my mother, and my sister — during my childhood and teen-age years. I was very close to my two bubbes (grandmothers), both of whom were Eastern-European Jewish immigrants to the United States.

My father’s mother, Bubbe Ellenson, lived in my hometown of Newport News, Va., while my maternal grandmother, Bubbe Stern, lived in Cambridge, Mass. They were both wonderful and loving companions to me. Bubbe Ellenson would eat dinner with my family three nights every week, and every Saturday night of my childhood I slept at her apartment.

Each summer, for a decade of my childhood, I went to Cambridge and stayed with Bubbe Stern, who would talk to me into the night and tell me stories — often harrowing ones, of pogroms — of her life in Russia and how grateful she was to America for the gift of freedom it allowed. She was a stately and educated woman. (She could read and write Russian as well as Yiddish. I remember fondly how she would take me at least once each summer to the statehouse in Boston, and would tell me how wonderful this country was. I would go with her to shul in Cambridge every week and watch her prepare traditional Jewish foods in her kitchen as she magically transformed her home for Shabbes. I cannot calculate the impact the love these two women shared with me had upon my life. I still feel it every day.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, Jewish Feminism Series, Feminism

Priming the Next Generation of Feminists

By Francine Klagsbrun

This is the tenth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I embraced Jewish feminism with passion, as did many women in my generation. We were the mothers, the founders, the fighters. My special battle arena was having women ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement. When that was accomplished, I knew we would win the larger war; we were helping to create a generation of learned, committed women who would change the face of Jewish communal life. What we predicted came true. Female rabbis now seem as natural a sight on the podiums of liberal synagogues as any male rabbi ever did, and Orthodox women have begun to find their way as religious leaders.

Now I listen with puzzlement when my almost-teenage granddaughter tells me that neither she nor her friends think of themselves as feminists. “That was in your time, Grandma,” she says, “it’s not part of our lives.” But what does she think when she chants a Torah portion out loud or leads services in our Conservative synagogue, as she has done since her bat mitzvah?

She must know — because I’ve told her — that only in recent times have women been permitted to do such things. Yet she takes these activities so for granted that she doesn’t want to hear about what used to be. She is happy with what is. So am I. We always said that we looked forward to the day when women will be so fully integrated into roles that once belonged exclusively to men that nobody would even comment on their presence. We have reached those goals and can feel good about our achievements.

But here’s a worm of discontent that gnaws away at my feminist soul: We opened the doors for women in many areas, but we did not show them how to manage their lives once they stepped through those doors.

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In Israel, Jewish and Feminist Selves Do Battle

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

This is the ninth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

The first time I entered an Orthodox synagogue and saw a mehitza, or divider separating men and women in prayer, I was a little girl visiting my grandparents in Queens. Their home wasn’t religiously observant in the slightest, but my grandfather had grown up in an Orthodox family, and so the synagogue he attended — when he attended — was Orthodox.

I was only eight or nine years old when I first saw the mechitza but I clearly remembered being shocked at the sight of women relegated to the back of a house of worship, behind a partition. It was utterly alien to everything I knew a synagogue to be.

In the small WASP-y New England suburb where I lived until I left for college, the small Reform synagogue, known as “The Temple” with about 100 families, was the only game in town. Men and women sat together, some men with kippot, others without, as our young rabbi picked up his guitar before services and sang the tunes. Women were not only equal, they dominated synagogue life, some serving as president of the synagogues, making sure the Hebrew school and youth groups functioned smoothly.

For me, growing up, feminist Judaism was the norm. It was Judaism.

It was only as a college student on my junior year in Israel and later in graduate school in New York City that I was truly exposed to Orthodoxy. I learned much more in my first job as a Jewish journalist, covering the workings of the Jewish world for the JTA, and still more after I married a man from an Orthodox family in Jerusalem.

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My Feminist Formation

By Susannah Heschel

This is the eighth entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I’ve always felt that I was born a feminist.

Seeing injustice and protesting it as a child, my eyes were too big and my voice was too loud. The disparities were offensive: in the synagogue, at homes of my Hasidic relatives, at my Orthodox day school. There was no logic: If Judaism was wonderful, why was I excluded? Being female brought no celebration: When the elderly ladies in the women’s section of the synagogue we attended, the (not-yet-egalitarian) Jewish Theological Seminary, decided that at age 8, I was now too old to sit next to my father in the men’s section and had to move to the women’s section, their insistence was not laced with warm welcome; it dripped with disapproval, no doubt stemming from their own bitterness and resentment. To become a woman in that setting was not a moment of rejoicing and delight.

However, looking at Judaism from the margins was the best intellectual training imaginable. That was, after all, the classic position of Jews in relation to majority society and gave rise to the ambivalence that feminists, too, experience: desire for integration and acceptance battled with resentment at exclusion and the wish to remain separate and different — and unique.

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A Jewish Feminism for Global Challenges

By Ruth Messinger

This is the seventh entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

As a child in the 1940s and ’50s, I unknowingly experienced Jewish feminism before it really existed. Beginning in 1938 my mother, Marjorie Wyler, worked full-time as the Jewish Theological Seminary’s director of public relations, radio and television; it was a position she held for 55 years. My mother was way ahead of her time, not only as a public intellectual and as a leader in an institution dominated by men, but by raising my sister and me with the unshakable belief that we could do and be whatever we wanted.

I would learn decades later that my mother’s trajectory didn’t always have a silver lining: She constantly fought sexism in the workplace and was grossly underpaid. In the 1980s and ’90s, I was in the thick of my political career as a New York City Councilwoman, and as Manhattan Borough president. Sexism gnawed at the edges and chewed through the center of my work.

When I expressed an opinion, I was often dismissed as being “rude,” “pushy,” or “hysterical.” When I requested a public hearing about a piece of legislation I’d drafted, a powerful male colleague responded by saying: “Of course you can have a hearing. I can never say no to a pretty girl.” And although I was popular within the Hispanic community, I could never win the support of Hispanic women over 40. Why? Because back then, many women in the community believed that women shouldn’t work outside the home.

When I lost the mayoral election and left city politics for a new career in international development, my understanding of gender inequality acquired a global perspective.

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Staying the (Jewish Feminist) Course

By Blu Greenberg

This is the sixth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

How I became a feminist and why I have remained one for 40 years are two different stories.

In December 1962, returning home from the lecture circuit, my husband purchased for me Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” at an airport bookstore. This was my introduction to women’s lib, as we called it then, and I shuttled between three reactions: exhilaration, wide-eyed wonder and suspicion. Throughout the next decade, I watched — and grew — from the sidelines. Incidents of inequity that heretofore would not have given me a moment’s pause were now being played against a new canvas. Intellectually, I knew that feminism was about justice.

My husband figured prominently in the process. He may eat the same breakfast every morning, but when it comes to new ideas, he is the most open, adventurous, fair-minded person I know. As a young rabbi, he was not afraid to introduce to his congregants, myself among them, the heady idea of women’s equality within the boundaries of Jewish law, orhalacha — the definition of Orthodox feminism.

But still I watched.

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Jewish Feminism Means Reaching Out

By Elana Sztokman

This is the fifth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

What is Jewish feminism to me?

It’s a mission. A calling. An identity. A life purpose. To borrow a French term, it’s my raison d’etre. Or to borrow a Buddhist term, it’s my swadharma, the ideal that connects the work that I do in this world with my divine spark. It is the key that fires the engine in my soul. It is the spiritual ideal that wraps up my entire being reminds me that I am here on this earth because God decided that I need to be here, in this person, in this identity. Jewish woman. That is everything to me. It is all that I am.

It wasn’t always this way. This is an identity in two parts, two parts that sometimes coexist, sometimes fight, sometimes mutually empower and sometimes mutually deflect. One part, the Jewish part, I was born into, without a say in the matter, while the other part, the feminist part, I chose as an adult, following a journey that included pain, struggle and discovery. One part is ancient but the other is relatively recent — in definition, at least, though not as an ideal. One part has definitive, authoritative texts and rules while the other has a different kind of textual heritage, the writings of women creating ideas out of their own lives.

Yet both are divinely inspired. And the place where the two pieces overlap is, in my opinion, the place where the shechina rests.

The Bible’s Ruth epitomizes that place for me, the place where the core of Judaism and the core of feminism overlap and melt into each other.

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Second Edition Feminism

By Anita Diamant

This is the fourth entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

In the introduction to my first book, “The New Jewish Wedding,” I wrote, “References to the rabbi as him/or her do no more than acknowledge the decision to ordain women by the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements.”

That was 1985. When I revised the book in 2001, I couldn’t quite believe that I’d written those words. I suppose I felt the need to remind readers about what were, back then, relatively new facts on the ground. Even worse, I think I was worried about offending someone by telling a simple truth.

I left that sentence out in the second edition, as well as a few other apologetic asides that pointed out what has since become ubiquitous and obvious: Jewish women are leaders and teachers, rabbis and cantors, theologians and prophets.

For the first time in our history, women’s voices — not just singular and extraordinary characters, but a large and varied chorus — are part of the public discourse about everything: about God and halacha, about the governance of our synagogues, about marriage and how we educate our children, about our money, about the substance and fire of our lives.

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Don't Let Preference Veto Justice

By Jay Michaelson

This is the third entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

I want to answer the question of “what Jewish feminism means to me” in two ways: First, about how I learn from it both substantively; and second, on a meta level, in terms of how all of us enrich the Jewish conversation through our differences.

First, I cannot imagine my concept of God, as it stands now, without the input of Jewish feminists. As a young gay man, it was all too easy for me to understand God as a (male) friend, as a (putatively male) spirit, and even, alas, as a (highly male) father or judge. I did not “naturally” experience God as wombful (rachamim), as immanent in the breezes, trees and flowers, or as the endlessly circling and spiraling cycles of the natural world. To be sure, I had some vague experiential inklings of these mysterious forces, but they always seemed apart from my Judaism.

It was only as I came to appreciate the egalitarian and progressive elements of Jewish feminism and, later, its radical earth-based and potentially revolutionary elements that I saw how incomplete my earlier understanding of God had been.

Jewish feminism also means, for me, refusing to give one’s own preferences, or even the mandates of tradition, a veto over justice. For example, I still resonate more with traditional liturgical language than with some gender-neutral revisions of it, but my preferential “resonance” is, I think, much less important than ensuring our theological discourse does not perpetuate oppression.

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'Feminist' Feels More Political Than I Am

By Abigail Pogrebin

This is the second entry in an ongoing series about Jewish feminism.

It’s difficult to be “for” something I have never lived without.

I don’t remember a bimah without women. When I was growing up, my mother was the cantor at our makeshift shul on Fire Island, so my Jewish practice always had a female face. I don’t remember learning Judaism without women because some of my most formative Jewish teachers — Miri Kubovy, Mychal Springer, Jennifer Krause and Angela Buchdahl — were strong, scholarly women. I have only known integrated, egalitarian Judaism, just as I have only known an egalitarian home — my parents’ and now my own.

Radical as it may sound, I never really experienced sexism, just as I didn’t encounter anti-Semitism. I know both still fester, and that they were once controlling and insidious, but thanks, in significant part, to the work of my mother and her compatriots, we live in a different world now.

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Jewish Feminism: The Battles Are Not Over

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

This is the first entry of an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.

Why am I a Jewish feminist?

Because if you’re a woman, you’re either a feminist or a masochist.

Because if you’re a Jew, you’re obligated to pursue justice and treat each person — man and woman — with perfect dignity, for all of humanity is created in the image of God and filled with divine sparks.

In other words, I’m a feminist because I’m a woman and a Jew.

Anyone seeking religious justification for the women’s movement struggle against sex discrimination and gender violence need only recall the words of the ancient sage, Hillel, who famously summarized the entire Torah (while standing on one leg) saying, “Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.” This terse distillation of fundamental Judaic ethics could serve as the rallying cry for every feminist organizer from Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernestine Rose, and Emma Goldman to Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, and the feisty young feminists of the 21st century.

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'What Jewish Feminism Means to Me'

By Gabrielle Birkner and Debra Nussbaum Cohen

What does it mean to be a Jewish feminist today?

That is the key question that we will explore in a new Sisterhood series, in which women and men, from across denominational, political and generational spectra, will write about the convergence, and in some cases the separation, of their Jewish and feminist identities.

The series, which coincides with Women’s History Month, will feature essays by “The Red Tent” author Anita Diamant, founding mother of Orthodox feminism Blu Greenberg, Rabbi David Ellenson, who heads the Reform movement’s rabbinical seminary, and The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin.

The series begins next week with an entry by the writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine. She juxtaposes the achievements of the women’s movement in general with those of Jewish feminism in particular. In the second entry, one of Cottin Pogrebin’s daughters, the author Abigail Pogrebin, discusses her own discomfort with the “Jewish feminist” label.

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