Women Count at T&V: A Story of Revolutionary Change

This is a wonderful talk by T&V member, Batya Miller tracing the history of egalitarianism at T&V.   It was presented to the congregation on Shabbat morning, July 18, 2015

Women Counting at T&V: A Story of Revolutionary Change

Thank you Rabbi Sebert for giving me this opportunity to talk to the congregation today and for all your support and assistance in making this happen. In the course of revisiting a paper I had written in 1996, I spoke to many members who had lived through the story I am about to tell and would like to thank all of them for their help. Among them was Sy Beder who provided me with a joke to start my talk (I had told him that my father, a rabbi started every sermon with a joke to wake up the members). It goes as follows:

“Yeshiva University decided to field a rowing team. They lost race after race. Finally the Rosh Yeshiva decided to send Yankel to spy on the championship Harvard team. So Yankel went to Cambridge and hid in the bushes to watch the Harvard team practice. After two weeks Yankel returned to Yeshiva and announced ‘I have figured out our problem. We should have only one guy shouting and the other eight should row’.” After changing their “tradition,” YU began to win races. This too is a story of how a group of people changed tradition with a very successful outcome.

As difficult as it may be for many of you to believe, there was a time, in the not too distant past, when women did not “count” at T&V, at least not ritually – and politically – speaking. Where would the morning minyan be today if women didn’t count? And what would the bima look like if women did not get aliyot, did not read Torah, and did not assume positions of leadership?

The parsha we read last week included an episode about the orphaned daughters of Zelophahad who also appeared in this week’s parsha. These unmarried daughters, most likely teenagers, demanded before the whole assembly that Moses count them in the distribution of land “lest the name of their father be forgotten.” “Why should the name of our father be lost to his clan because he had no sons?” they cried. Moses ruled in their favor after appealing to God. Through their bold action, the daughters radically changed the laws of inheritance as first announced by Moses and firmly established the rights of women to inherit. They had the courage to literally take control of their own lives and literally go to the most holy center of the camp. And thus they shaped Jewish history.

T&V has its own daughters of Zelophahad. They were women who in the early to mid 1970’s had the courage to stand up before the then male-dominated congregation and say, as did the daughters, that they had a right to be counted also, and this time they spoke on their own behalf, not on behalf of their fathers. They also experienced resistance on the part of their clansmen. As a result of their courage, vision, and persistence, T&V became one of the first highly traditional conservative congregations to grant full ritual equality to women, and in fact the very first in New York City. And thus T&V’s own women played a crucial role in shaping the history of Conservative Judaism and the modern history of Jewish women.

Before I relate our specific story, a little context and history is in order. By the time T&V came to wrestle with the issue of egalitarianism in the early 1970’s, family or mixed seating, which in itself had been a heated topic of debate, had become the norm in all but a few Conservative synagogues and was often perceived as the public line of demarcation between Conservative and Orthodox ritual. Mixed seating literally brought women to the center of the sanctuary, just like the daughters of Zelophohad. But while sisterhoods flourished and provided services essential for the vitality and continuity of the congregation, women still remained on the periphery of power and authority; in the early 1970’s, women held leadership positions in very few congregations and were not counted in a minyan nor allowed to read from the Torah or receive aliyot in traditional Conservative synagogues such as T&V (although the Rabbinical Assembly had acknowledged the legitimacy of aliyot for women as early as 1955).

Those synagogues that had adopted some form of egalitarianism were most likely located in the suburbs of the West and South, were formed after WWII, did not have a traditional service, and had a young and large membership. In contrast, the T&V of the early 1970s was a highly traditional, urban, Eastern congregation and had a median age of 55. It had been founded after WWII by returning veterans who lived in the then-new developments of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. In 1970, the Hebrew School was struggling, the population aging; women had just been allowed to serve on the board of trustees and to become members on their own (both requiring an amendment of the bylaws).

The beginning of T&V’s transformation can be traced to the confluence of several events beginning with the employment of a visionary rabbi, Steven Lerner, in 1969. Rabbi Lerner represented a new generation of rabbis: young (he was ordained only two years earlier), educated at JTS, energetic and forward-looking. He came of age professionally during the turbulent 1960’s. While highly traditional with regard to ritual and even given to preaching about the importance of observance such as kashrut, he was fully engaged with the raging issues of that time such as the Vietnam war. For example, under Rabbi Lerner’s leadership, the congregation introduced a Draft Counseling Information Service, the only Conservative synagogue in New York City to do so, to advise young men who were about to drafted to fight in Vietnam . But when he first came to T&V, as a traditionally observant Jew, he was not at all interested in changing ritual practice to make it more inclusive; contrary to popular perception, his wife Anne, on the faculty of JTS and a thoroughly modern woman, was even more resistant than her husband to such a radical change.

Three events in the winter of 1972 propelled Rabbi Lerner to seriously think about the question of women’s full ritual participation. The first took place at a gravesite funeral; the daughter of the deceased, who could not say kaddish for her father because there was no minyan of men at the gravesite, asked “When will you count us as people?” For Rabbi Lerner, this question was very disturbing and thought provoking.

Shortly after that funeral, questions of women being counted were introduced by a recently formed group called Ezrat Nashim at the Rabbinical Assembly meeting in March of 1972. Ezrat Nashim was a group of women who lobbied for egalitarianism for women in Jewish ritual and communal life. Our own Rabbi Judith Hauptman was a member of this group; she had been called in to educate the group about Talmudic texts relating to women’s issues. She found this experience transformative; it raised her consciousness about Jewish feminism and introduced her to a new way of reading these Talmudic texts on women that has to a large extent informed the direction of her research and writing. Ezrat Nashim’s 1972 manifesto, entitled “Jewish Women Call for Change,” demanded, among other things, that women be counted in a minyan , that they be allowed full participation in religious observances, be granted membership in their own right and be given opportunities to exercise their leadership capabilities in synagogue and communal life. Denied their request to address the Rabbinical Assembly, Ezrat Nashim did have their “call” included in the packets distributed to the rabbis, and they invited those rabbis’ wives who were attending the convention to a special meeting. Anne Lerner, the rabbi’s wife, was one of the attendees.

The third event was the bat mitzvah of Beth Mann, one of our members and the child of founding members. Observing the potential and commitment that Beth had, Rabbi Lerner urged her family to send her to Camp Ramah in the summer of 1971; she came back transformed. Totally immersed in Jewish life while at camp, she absorbed everything the camp had to teach her. This equipped her to take on a larger role in her bat mitzvah which took place in March of 1972, the summer after she first went to Camp Ramah. Not only did she read the haftorah but she also chanted and led part of the Friday night service, limited only by the reluctance of the traditional cantor, Louis Moss, who had been with T&V part-time since 1951. Rabbi Lerner, who had urged Beth to become more fully engaged in Judaism, noted that Beth’s bat mitzvah should be the beginning of her participation as it was for boys at their bar mitzvah and not the culmination. While bar mitzvah boys were expected to assume Jewish adult responsibility and communal/ritual participation, for girls, the bat mitzvah marked the exit from participation. There were no opportunities for Beth, so able and enthusiastic, or any other girl so inclined, to participate in the ritual life of the community after her bat mitzvah. As the rabbi said that evening, “How can we tell Beth that she can’t come up to the bimah anymore?”

The cumulative effect of these experiences propelled Rabbi Lerner to seriously think about these issues. He addressed the congregation on Rosh Hashannah of 1973, shortly after the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards issued its decision counting women in the minyan and the 1955 ruling by the Committee approving aliyot for women was rediscovered. This ruling had been virtually ignored by synagogues for 18 years. Rabbi Lerner pointed out that the Talmud clearly allowed women to be called to the Torah ( which meant that they could both receive aliyot and read from the Torah). He chose the issue of aliyot (rather than being counted in a minyan) because it was both halachichly on firmer ground and politically (and psychologically) more difficult because it was so public. Winning this battle would mean winning the war! And so the campaign for equal rights at T&V began.

Over the next ten months, the congregation debated these weighty questions: should women be counted and called to the Torah? It was a difficult and divisive time for the congregation. While the question first had to be brought to the Ritual Committee (it voted yes) and then to the Board of Trustees (which voted no with only two of the five women on the board voting yes, even though Women’s League had overwhelmingly endorsed aliyot for women), it was up to the membership to make the decision at the tumultuous annual meeting in the spring of 1974. The attendance at this annual meeting was unprecedented: over 120 people out of a membership of around 265 families.

Emotions ran high. Some in the opposition thought that the rabbi and his loyal cadre had packed the meeting, including one elderly gentleman who came in an ambulette! When halachic objections were brought up, the rabbi pointed out that mixed seating had less rabbinic authority than aliyot. Some, desirous of change but fearful, were reassured by recent precedents set by synagogues in other parts of the country. Many of the older women who voted in favor did not want aliyot for themselves but for their daughters and for all those women for whom it was important. “It evolved into a question of sisterhood” said one (meaning sisterhood with a small “s”). Despite vigorous opposition, the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of women’s aliyot: 85 or 69% in favor; 38 against. Thus T&V became the first traditional Conservative synagogue in New York City to grant aliyot to women! At that same meeting, the congregation voted for a board and president which had voted against aliyot; an opposing slate of board and officers representing the younger generation which had voted for aliyot for women was roundly defeated.

With all the excitement of momentous changes hovering in the air, the decision was made to give the very first aliyah to the highest ranking female officer during the following High Holidays in the fall of 1974. That was Florence Friedman who was then third vice-president and would become the first female president in 1976. Florence, raised in an Orthodox household, had never thought of herself as a feminist. But nevertheless she and her husband, a WWII veteran, decided to join a Conservative synagogue after the war so that she would not have the same sense of exclusion she experienced in her father’s synagogue as a child. She became active in the Sisterhood and was the first woman to serve on the board of trustees. Florence had strong religious impulses that attracted her to the Ritual Committee; there she voted against aliyot for women as she did subsequently when the vote came before the board and the whole congregation. And yet, albeit reluctantly and with much trepidation, she agreed to accept the aliyah: “I thought the earth would swallow me up or the sky would fall down on me,” she recalled. And after that aliyah, she accepted the first aliyah on Simchat Torah, along with many other women, including the formerly reluctant Anne Lerner, the rabbi’s wife. Florence became the first female president two years later and was the first woman to carry around a Torah on Kol Nidre, a momentous occasion representing an emotional watershed, with many women crying and hugging each other.

Why did this highly traditional woman agree to accept these honors? She did so because through the membership vote the congregation had committed itself to this momentous change. She wanted to stay actively involved and recognized her symbolic role in the community. Over the years, aliyot became important to Florence and she enjoyed receiving them, especially those in memory of her parents. And when she became the first female president, she actually liked the honor of being first and enjoyed the power that came with the position.

After the high holidays in 1974, the board voted, with little fanfare, to count women in the minyan, confirmed in a meeting of the whole membership in January of 1975. In November of 1975, Beth, the bat mitzvah girl, was the first female to read from the Torah itself, Parshat Noach, a double portion no less. Torah reading classes were organized, which attracted girls as young as nine. While there was some lingering opposition – occasionally a man would leave when it became obvious that a woman was being counted for the minyan, and the rabbi had to remind the ritual chairman to grant aliyot to women on Shabbat – the changes were accepted with surprising alacrity and only one couple withdrew from T&V (and the two were relatively new members). T&V made the cover of Hadassah magazine in October of 1976 with a photo of Rabbi Lerner and Betty Forman carrying a Torah, wearing slacks and a doily. In 1988 women started to serve as Shaliach Tzibur, the first one being Beth, when the longtime cantor, Louis Moss, suddenly died. In 1989, the congregation elected a female cantor, although with considerable debate. We have had female cantors ever since. Women have continued to read Torah so much so that T&V became known by the 1990’s as the synagogue where congregants read the Torah. Women account for more than 60% of the torah readers.

Full political participation was slower to come. After Florence was elected president in 1976, we had to wait until 1993 when Beth Mann, was elected our second female president. It is noteworthy that both of these women, from different generations, were “one of us” to the founding generation. But now female presidents are routinely elected: since 1998 all elected presidents have been female. The result is that on a given Shabbat, the bimah may be dominated by women. Some women, including those among the Torah readers, lament the fact that there are not more male Torah readers (and male presidents!).

So did making women count turn out to be good or bad for T&V? By all indicia, T&V is in a better position today than it was in the early 1970’s. Just look around you: the congregation is more observant and Jewishly educated (despite fears to the contrary), judging by shul attendance at services and the number of children attending the Hebrew school as well as day schools. The membership is much more diversified, having many young families and a large and active singles population. And the inclusion of women set the precedent for the full inclusion and integration of other groups: T&V was one of the first traditional Conservative congregations to embrace same-sex couples and gay singles as equal members as well as transgender individuals. The rabbi performs same-sex marriages. And has long been one of the most welcoming congregations to Jews by Choice.

What accounts for T&V’s successful and early adoption of egalitarianism so quickly as to be a revolution rather than an evolution? Many factors came into play. The membership’s liberal orientation (remember the draft counseling information service in the early 1970s) made the congregation more open to change, especially when that change appealed to people’s sense of equity and fairness. The fact that the synagogue, with a dwindling Hebrew school and aging demographic, was aware of its own mortality probably contributed to its willingness to embrace an innovation which spoke of the future and renewal. At the same time, the congregations’ relatively small size, compact geography and short common history contributed to the strong sense of community: leaving was simply not an option for the founding generation which regarded the synagogue as an extended family.

But perhaps the most important factor was the cast of characters who came together at a pivotal time. Rabbi Lerner seized the initiative in the campaign for equal rights and provided the necessary leadership, commitment and passion to run a successful campaign. But a rabbi needs followers who then become leaders. And in women such as Florence Friedman, a radical transformation appeared to be less radical and more acceptable to the founders who initially opposed the change. And young women such as Beth Mann showed the way to the possibility of a bright future when women counted.