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Looking Forward, Reaching Back

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.

A Jewish feminist should be motivated by the moral value of areivut, mutual responsibility. Having a corner office isn’t enough to qualify her as a Jewish feminist. Besides nurturing other women on lower rungs of the ladder, a Jewish feminist has to concern herself with an agenda that attends to issues concerning Jewish women, like the plight of the agunot (the “chained ones” whose husbands refuse to grant them Jewish divorces).

While it is satisfying to identify women who have made their mark and chalk one up for feminism, a Jewish feminist is more than a Jewish woman who has attained some astral height. I would also expect her to recognize the validity of the choices of those who choose a different path.

I am troubled by the toxic discourse between the women who work outside the home and those who have made homemaking and raising Jewish children their primary responsibility.

Surely Jewish feminism can be capacious enough to hold both groups, and in the words of the Rambam, acknowledge that there are many roads to the palace.

Carol K. Ingall is the Dr. Bernard Heller Professor of Jewish Education a the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of, most recently, “The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education, 1910–1965.”


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