The following interview by Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld with Rella Mintz-Geffen was published in Israel National News, and republished here with the author’s consent.
The Changed Status of American Jewish Women
Manfred Gerstenfeld interviews Rela Mintz Geffen
“Until a few decades ago, Jewish women were literally written out of Jewish history. The Encyclopedia Judaica, published in the 1960’s, contained biographies of some women but in scholarly articles, individual women and the role of women as a group were hardly mentioned. In recent years when revisions were made, the editors decided to restore women to Jewish history.
“For example, the previous encyclopedia article on candles did not mention the word woman. The article on kashrut (dietary laws) did not discuss the role of women. My article in the new encyclopedia stresses that while supervision and ritual slaughter were male tasks, the community had to rely on women to keep dietary laws and teach them to their daughters. Without trust in the faithful execution by women of the commandments, there would have been no observance of the dietary laws, or of holidays such as Passover.”
Prof. Rela Mintz Geffen, Professor Emeritus, was the sixth president of Baltimore Hebrew University after serving as Professor of Sociology and Dean for Academic Affairs at Gratz College. She is a member of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
“From the perspective of the social sciences, four decades is not a long time span to see major social change. Yet as far as the role of Jewish women in America is concerned, many changes have taken even less time.
“The changed role of women has led to alterations in the complexion of the American Jewish community. These changes are undeniably related to what is happening in American society at large. Yet they have a specifically Jewish flavor and take place in many areas across Jewish life.
“The opening of the study of rabbinic and classical Jewish texts to women is one major area of change. Even if only a few hundred women have such degrees, the access of women to Jewish classics has a great impact. Another major influence stems from the introduction of Jewish studies on many American campuses. During the first half of the twentieth century, many Jewish women did not receive formal Jewish education.
“Access to these studies for women – particularly since the exponential growth of Jewish day schools and of Jewish studies on hundreds of American college campuses – has greatly advanced their knowledge. As women are half the population, this affects the tenor of the community very much. There are already several hundred Jewish women teachers holding doctorates in Jewish studies who are university scholars. This also impacts the way Jewish history is taught.
“Women have risen to public leadership of the Jewish community in lay positions more than in the professional realm. It remains however, much easier for a woman to become a Reform or Conservative rabbi, or president of a synagogue than the executive director of a Jewish federation which groups fundraising in communities. A study of women on U.S Jewish organizational boards commissioned by Maa’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, identified forty organizations as major Jewish agencies. Of those, only two had women CEO’s as of the year 2000. More than half of the thirty national organizations which answered that survey’s question on compensation did not have a woman in their five highest-salaried positions. Gender inequity within the Jewish communal field has long been a subject of controversy and concern.
“As far as fundraising is concerned, for many decades the philosophy was ‘talk to the man and get the woman out of the way.’ This was based on a stereotype. Women were regarded as selfish, urging their husbands not to give so as to ensure more disposable income for themselves.”
Geffen remarks: “In recent years a major effort has been made by women’s organizations as well as departments of local Jewish federations to bring women into Jewish philanthropy. Some women are prominent in their own family foundations. There are several powerful Jewish women in public life, such as senators and courts justices who are not active in the Jewish community. Nevertheless, they may be considered spokespeople for the community when the moment is right. There are also Jewish women presidents of major American universities.
“Besides the public aspect of religion, there is the private one – what individuals and families do at home in the household. There is a debate about the current role of the home in maintaining a Jewish life. The family is still functioning and powerful. However, it is not necessarily working positively on Jewish matters. For many Jews, the synagogue remains the central grassroots Jewish institution in America.”
Geffen concludes: “To sum up: the enfranchisement of Jewish women has greatly enriched American Jewish life. Egalitarianism has become so pervasive and normative in American Jewish life, that it rarely makes headlines. The only way that gender makes Jewish news now is when something really unexpected occurs such as changes in the Orthodox community, or in the area of public organizational life where there remains a dearth of women professionals.”