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Drash Women on the Bimah | How TI Became Egalitarian

Change in the Conservative Movement and at TI
A Personal Account

Drash, By Barbara M. White

My talk is titled, "Women on the Bimah: A Personal Account of Change in the Conservative Movement and at TI." What I find most remarkable about the role of women in services at TI - and this, of course includes teenaged girls - is just how unremarkable it is.

It wasn't always this way. I have here a copy of the [Washington] Jewish Week of September 4, 1975. There is an article along with a picture of me. The headline of the article reads: "Woman to chant service at Tifereth Israel Synagogue." That was the year I first led a Rosh Hashanah Musaf.

I suspect that for many of you under the age of 40, or even 45, my talk today is about ancient history. I am glad that is the case. However, it's important to know the past, particularly the recent past.

Howard and I joined TI in 1969. Women and men sat together, of course. And TI had Friday night bat mitzvahs. I gather that in many respects, TI resembled other Conservative synagogues in our region.

There was always one woman on the TI Board: the President of the Sisterhood. All the other officers were men. In Congregational elections and special Congregational meetings, only one vote was allotted per family unit. And that vote had to be cast by the male "head of the household"; I assume exceptions were if the household was not headed by a male. And every Shabbat morning, a group of Sisterhood members prepared and served the Kiddush.

In May of 1971, about two years after Howard and I joined, TI had its first out-of-town Retreat. Howard and I went. At the time we had only one child, a toddler, so we brought along a babysitter. 

At the suggestion, or perhaps I should say instigation, of Sarah Kestenbaum, z''l, we held a discussion about women in services on Shabbat afternoon. Could women be given a more active role at services? And if so, was this something we should do? I was interested, but not vitally so. I was happy sitting in the congregation, davenning at my place, and singing along.

Or so I thought. As I heard woman after woman talk about her experiences, I realized that I had not so much "accepted" my assigned role in Judaism as "put up" with it. Back then, that sort of sudden realization by women was called "consciousness raising."

I had grown up in the small town of Portsmouth, Va. I was an only child and lived with my parents behind the grocery store. The store was open 6½ days a week, closing only for Sunday afternoon and for the High Holidays. For years, I pestered my parents to send me to Hebrew school. Finally, they did. The town's synagogue announced that the Hebrew School would offer a summer session, and my parents enrolled me in the beginning class. I was 11 years old. Had I been born a boy, I am sure my parents would have found a way to send me earlier.

Hebrew School was separate from Sunday School. Hebrew School met 4 afternoons a week. All the Jewish boys in Portsmouth attended Hebrew School, but only a few of the girls. At Hebrew School, the children learned to read and translate Hebrew, with an emphasis on Chumash and prayers. Both boys and girls went to Sunday School, where we learned Jewish history and holidays.

Despite my late start in Hebrew School, I lapped it up. When I was around 13, the rabbi told me privately: "You really should have a bat mitzvah. But the older men would never stand for it."

Around the same time - it was the spring of 1949, a few months before I turned 13 - my Hebrew teacher coached me to give a presentation on a chapter of Pirkei Avot at what he called Shaloshuddas (I now know this as Seudah Shlisheet). I had never heard of Shaloshuddas, much less attended one. So, late one Saturday afternoon, there I was, sitting at the head of a long table in a room adjoining the synagogue's chapel, eating chopped herring and challah with a bunch of old men and my teacher. I read and translated portions of my prepared chapter, and gave the canned explanations I had been taught. Then, my teacher, Mr. Lewittes, had me show off my knowledge of Hebrew grammar. The old men were impressed.

When we finished, my teacher and I walked back to the Lewittes apartment. Later that evening, after my parents had closed the grocery store, they came to pick me up. That's when Mr. Lewittes told my parents - and me - that what I had done that afternoon was a substitute for the bat mitzvah I could not have. My mother was astonished: "You should have told us!" she said. "We would have closed the store!"

At that 1971 Retreat discussion, I recalled several other experiences. My experiences were not unusual. This is how things used to be, at least for many of us. It is, however, important to remember that during the 1940's and '50's, Judaism fit in to what society as a whole was like. For example, in the 1940's and 1950's, women often worked outside the home in a variety of occupations and professions, ranging from teacher to bus driver to businesswoman to doctor. My own mother worked beside my father in the family grocery store, running back and forth into the house to prepare dinner each night. Yet the accepted "myth" (I can think of no other word for it) was that men worked and women stayed at home.

Society began to change in the 1960s and '70s - from the publication of The Feminine Mystique to the passage of Title VII of the Equal Rights Act to the opening up of the Soap Box Derby to girls. The need for these and other changes tells us just how unequal society was.

Judaism too had changed. In 1955, a Conservative responsum ruled that a woman could have an aliyah. This paved the way for Shabbat or holiday morning bat mitzvahs. I was in college at this time, yet nothing changed in Shabbat morning Hillel services. I later learned that one or two Shabbat morning bat mitzvahs were held in my own home town not long after this ruling. Yet none of my four younger cousins had the bat mitzvah for which she was eligible. The halachic underpinnings of change were in place; a full structure of change had not yet been erected.

Now let me return once more to the 1971 Retreat. At the end of the Shabbat afternoon discussion of women at TI, we decided to bring the issue before the congregation in a positive way. Rabbi Abramowitz stated that he was in favor of giving women leadership roles in services, but wondered whether the congregation was ready for such a move. However, he readily agreed that we should explore the issue with the congregation.

We decided as a first step to hold a Friday night dinner, service, and discussion. This evening would feature two revolutionary innovations: (1) The service would be led by a woman. (2) The dinner would be cooked and served by TI men.A large group of men volunteered to cook and serve. But which woman should lead the service? She should be active and respected in the congregation, someone who was quite familiar with the service, someone with a nice voice. No, Mollie Berch did not volunteer. But when asked, she did agree to lead.

At the discussion that followed Mollie's service, there was anything but agreement. I was surprised at the views of many of the older women. Many of the women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s did not want change. Some of these women said something to the effect that they had led good, useful, and meaningful lives, both Jewishly and in general terms, and therefore saw no need for change. Those of us who were then in our 30s learned more about how these older women felt. And as the congregation gradually progressed to greater involvement in services by women, these older women grew to accept and value a newer way of doing things.

Later that summer, the Board created a special TI Committee on the Status of Women. The task of the Special Committee was to explore the role of women in TI services. The 12 to 15 members appointed to this Committee represented a cross-section of the congregation, including the Sisterhood President and one other Sisterhood officer. Although a variety of views about women's participation were represented on the Committee, there was one, perhaps unspoken, requirement: the members of the Committee had to be able to sit and conduct a reasonably civil discussion with people whose views were diametrically opposed to their own. For any of you who remember TI in "the old days," this was not a foregone conclusion. The Committee was chaired by my husband, Howard. Howard was also the Ritual Chair and was known to be a strong supporter of full participation by women.

The Special Committee did not meet until after an initial congregational meeting in the early fall of 1971; this meeting was held to inform the members of the issue and get input from members. It was, Howard tells me, a long and vociferous meeting. As planned, no voting occurred.

At some point after that congregational meeting, still in the fall of 1971, the Special Committee put forth its first recommendation: (1) that women be allowed to open and close the ark on Shabbat morning services, and (2) that approximately every 6 months the Committee evaluate how things were going and decide whether or not to recommend any further action. The Committee could not implement its proposals; implementation depended on approval by the Board. No end point was specified. Many of the Committee members had their own hopes as to how this process would turn out, but these were not necessarily in agreement.
In the event, the entire process - from the 1971 Retreat to full equality for women - took 3 years. After the initial step (which I just spoke about), a number of further steps were taken at approximately 6-month intervals. One major step was allowing a bat mitzvah on a Festival morning during the 3 pilgimage festivals. Thus, Miriam Laufer had her Bat Mitzvah on a Shavuot morning, and the following year Margo Berch had her Bat Mitzvah on the second day of Pesach.

A significant step somewhere along the way was allowing women to open and close the ark on the High Holidays. In those days, most TI members rarely attended Shabbat morning services. There are a lot of ark openings and closings on the High Holidays. Thus, women of all ages and from all segments of the congregation began to get accustomed to ascending the bimah to open or close the ark. And men of all ages and from all segments of the congregation began to get used to seeing them there.

At some point, women were allowed to have a Torah aliyah to mark a special occasion, such as a birthday or anniversary. This was interpreted broadly enough to include chanting a haftarah. In 1972 or 1973, I became the first woman to do so. Here's what I wrote about that experience several years later in an article in Moment magazine:

"Somewhere in the middle of this process, I chanted my first haftarah, the first adult woman in our congregation to chant one. I wondered how this would be looked upon by the 'regulars', the older men who came to services every Shabbat morning. "Originally, these men had been very much opposed to increasing women's participation in services. They seemed to have accepted the Shabbat morning bat mitzvah. Were they ready to accept me?

"I need not have worried. When I finished, several of the 'regulars' rushed up to congratulate me.

"One who did not was a man in his eighties who often led services and whose initial protests at the idea of women on the bimah had been quite vigorous. My husband told me of his reaction. It was 'Give her a kiss for me'."

In May or June of 1974, we again held a special congregational meeting, this time to consider whether to go on to a final step. The Special Committee had proposed (1) that women be allowed to lead services and chant from the Torah at any time, and (2) that women be counted in a minyan. I and several other women attended to represent our families, since by this time the female head-of-household could cast the family vote. Very few people attended the meeting - a sure sign that we were far past the controversial stage. Not only were the proposed steps easily approved. Before we voted, three of the older men insisted on rising to speak in strong support of full equality for women in services. And these 3 men had not held those views at the beginning of the process. 

Before I ask for questions and comments, I want to mention a few people: Rabbi Abramowitz - in this case it is no cliché to say that without him we could not have reached equality for women in services; I and many others greatly appreciated his strong support. Marcia Goldberg: in the early years Marcia was prominent on the bimah in both speaking and walk-on roles. The fact that she came regularly to Shabbat morning services helped people to realize that this change was desired by women who were committed Jews. Judy Cohen, who came to the congregation a little later but who also became an active bimah participant early on. Harriet Dicker, who suggested to me that equal privileges for women implied equal obligations; as a result of that conversation, Harriet and I put on tallitot one Shabbat morning and have been wearing them ever since. And finally, my husband, Howard, and all the other unsung men of the TI who supported and encouraged the women of TI during this process.
A final comment: I believe that seeing women get up to chant from the Torah, to chant a haftarah portion, or to lead a service for the first time has encouraged many of the men of our congregation to learn the service they too had not learned at an early age. And this congregation is all the richer for it.

[NOTE: During the question period, Rabbi Abramowitz noted that many of the older men who originally opposed egalitarianism had been founding members of TI, which was originally established as an Orthodox synagogue. He also noted that TI was the first Conservative congregation in the area to become egalitarian.]