In 1974, when Sara Rae Perman began her training to become a rabbi, 12 out of 60 of her classmates at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were women.
Back then, that percentage of women was relatively high, considering the Reform movement had ordained its first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, just two years earlier.
Even so, as recently as the 1980s, a female rabbi was a rarity in most communities.
“When I was applying for this position 25 years ago, the community was surprised that the congregation had hired a woman,” Perman said of her rabbinic post at Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg. “It was such an oddity at the time.”
It was an oddity no longer in 2011, when 11 out of 12 rabbis ordained at the HUC-JIR in New York were women, as was about one third of the class of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.
While Jewish leaders — both clergy and lay — were overwhelmingly men 30 years ago, gender roles have shifted dramatically. And the effects of that shift can be felt from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem, to liberal American congregations now scrambling to keep their men engaged.
Women now outnumber men in weekly non-Orthodox worship services, volunteer leadership positions, and in attendance at Jewish cultural events. The only Jewish communal roles in which men still outnumber women are those in “lucrative, high-status executive positions,” wrote Sylvia Barack Fishman in her 2008 study: “Matrilineal Ascent/Patrilineal Descent: The Gender Imbalance in American Jewish Life.”
“There is a lot more going on than Imma on the bima,” said Fishman, the chair of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandies University.
As women take on more significant roles in both the spiritual and organizational realms of Judaism, and the religion arguably becomes more feminized, the response of men, generally speaking, has been fright or flight, and many wonder if the shift in gender roles is good for the Jewish people.
“I can’t say whether [the increase in women in Jewish leadership roles] is positive or negative,” said Perman, who is the most senior female rabbi in western Pennsylvania. “There probably are some negatives. For example, are we pushing men out? But on the positive side, there is a voice being heard now that wasn’t heard before.”
Angst over women taking the reins of the religion is nothing new, but has recurred several times throughout history, according to Riv-Ellen Prell, professor and chair of American studies at the University of Minnesota, where she is affiliated with the Center for Judaic Studies and the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies.
“Long before the ordination of women as rabbis and cantors, and throughout American Jewish history in the last two centuries, a constant theme of leaders and lay people was that Judaism was becoming too feminine and too dominated by women,” Prell said. “The ongoing anxiety is in and of itself noteworthy.”
Still, it surprises Prell that people speak of women’s evolving role in terms of how it is “ruining Judaism,” she said.
“That’s how they talked about it in the 1950s,” she said. “How it’s ‘ruining’ it?
“Despite the attention given to the phenomenon, the so called ‘feminization of Judaism,’ women’s equality is hardly a problem,” Prell said. “Concerns about population, intermarriage, and lack of affiliation may be much greater factors in fundamental changes in Jewish life.
“It’s not the primary thing that is changing Jewish life, but it has had a tremendously positive effect,” Prell continued, noting that since the 1970s, the number of Jews available to be in leadership roles has doubled because of the inclusion of women.
“It has dramatically increased the number of Jews who can aspire to be rabbis or cantors or educators,” she said, “and has increased the interest in spirituality. All denominations have taken up spirituality as a result.”
Since the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, all Jewish denominations, including Orthodoxy, have made huge strides in amplifying the role of women.
In the 1970s, while Conservative women — having honed their religious skills at Hebrew school and Camp Ramah — were seeking to expand their own roles in Jewish life, Orthodox women in Baltimore, Cambridge and St. Louis were forming female-only tefilla groups, where they could conduct worship services, and read from the Torah, according to Fishman.
Today, the tefilla groups of the 1970s “seem very mild,” Fishman said, when compared to what women now are permitted to do in some Orthodox congregations.
Take, for example, “partnership minyans,” which were begun in Jerusalem in 2002, and are now gaining popularity in the United States, Canada and Australia. While partnership minyans still separate men and women with a mechitza (barrier), and use the traditional liturgy, women are permitted to read Torah, receive aliyot, and lead many parts of the prayer service for the entire congregation.
Also unthinkable just a few decades ago, Orthodox women are now permitted to engage in “high-level scholarship,” Fishman said, and even have entered the clergy in various roles.
“There has been a profound change in the Orthodox community,” she said. “It used to be that Orthodox girls would get a good education, but the assumption was that they wouldn’t learn Talmud. But since the 1970s, there are more venues for women to be scholars.
“The ordination of Sara Hurwitz (the first women to be officially conferred as an Orthodox spiritual leader) is the tip of the iceberg,” Fishman continued. “It is her title (raba, a feminized version of rabbi) that people find surprising, but that she could learn Talmud was really the surprise. It used to be thought that women didn’t have the head for Talmud.”
An Orthodox woman now wishing to enter the clergy can also be credentialed as a yoetzet halacha (one who is trained in rabbinic materials) to serve as a halachic counselor to women with questions relating to the laws of family purity. She can also be a toenet, who is trained in civic and rabbinic law to advocate on behalf of religious women seeking a divorce.
“The anxiety about women becoming knowledgeable has been reduced in the Orthodox community,” Fishman said.
Along with the advances, however, has come a backlash.
“There are attempts to segregate women from men, and to erase them from advertisements [in Israel],” Fishman said. “This is the frightened reaction of the ultra-Orthodox world to all of these changes, both in the non-Orthodox and the Orthodox world.”
While ultra-Orthodox men are reacting to women’s advances by seeking to marginalize them, in the non-Orthodox world, large numbers of men are choosing instead to flee Jewish communal life altogether. This flight, in turn, has engendered a movement to try to bring men back into the fold.
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea — a large Reform congregation in California’s San Fernando Valley — focuses his rabbinate on the re-engagement of Jewish men. He leads an annual men’s retreat and a monthly men’s discussion and support group in his home, and has authored a hagada intended for men-only Passover seders.
“The feminization of the synagogue has been off-putting to some men,” Moskovitz said. “It doesn’t model their own experiences, so they’ve opted out. I’ve created these programs to bring them back in.”
“Women used to feel left out, but now there has been a pendulum swing,” he continued. “If they are in a mixed environment, men have lost some of their voice and comfort level, and they have retreated to their own man caves. I have created a safe place for men to talk openly with other guys because they don’t have a place to do it anymore.”
During his support groups, he said, men share “the joys and the oys of being a modern Jewish man.”
These groups foster friendships, which men find harder to form than women, according to Moskovitz.
“Now, when they come back into synagogue, they have someone to talk to,” he said.
His groups have not yet saved the male Jewish presence in Jewish life, Moskovitz said, “but we are on the right track.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)