The Importance of the History of Jewish Women
By: Jessica Kirzane
The history of Jewish women in America is important. It’s not just important in some politically-correct way – I’m not saying we need to be thinking about and teaching about American Jewish women in order to prove that they ‘contributed’ to a male-dominated history, or just to make sure that everyone feels they are represented in the classroom, although these are admirable goals. I’m saying that the history is important in its own right. I believe that if you don’t teach about women in history, you are actually getting it wrong – you are missing a significant part of history that will change even how you understand the actions and experiences of the men of the past, as well as those of the women. You are missing the people who provided not only the emotional support but also often the clerical and logistical work that made social movements, synagogues, and homes function, and without whom the “great men of history” could not have accomplished what they did. You are missing the educators who provided the knowledge and motivation that brought about the actions of these “great men of history.” You are missing half of the American Jewish population.
Not only this, but you are missing the important American Jewish Women who did hold crucial positions of leadership in American Jewish history, despite the challenges they faced because of their sex: Clara Lemlich, who among many accomplishments, gave the speech that launched the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909; Gertrude Elion, who developed the first chemotherapy for child leukemia and received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988; Bella Abzug, who fought for social justice in Congress, as a lawyer, and as a feminist organizer, to name only a few of many women who fundamentally shaped not only Jewish American history, but the history of all Americans. And of course you are missing the great women in Reform Jewish history, such as Carrie Simon, the first president of the National Foundation of Temple Sisterhoods (now known as Women of Reform Judaism) who spearheaded an organization to promote religious spirit within Reform religious life. As we reach the Centennial celebration of WRJ (founded in 1913) it is particularly important to remember the impact that the leadership and vision of women had on the development of the Reform Jewish movement.
So why don’t we know these names? Why don’t we teach them to our children? How many of these Women of Valor are discussed in Sunday Schools across the country? In Adult Education programs? In youth groups?
This past week I participated in an event that will change the way I teach Jewish history to teens. Together with 25 Jewish educators from across the country, I participated in the Jewish Women’s Archive’s Institute for Jewish Educators, an intensive four day program that provides practical training in how to teach students to engage with the stories of American Jewish women in history classes and programs. We formed a community of educators dedicated to presenting this material in our home communities and schools, and we learned creative ways to work with primary source documents and oral histories in our classrooms and other settings.
Most impressive to me were the Living the Legacy curricula that JWA provides for free as a resource to teachers wanting to teach about Jews in the Civil Rights and Labor movements. I was so grateful for this model of how to integrate Jewish women into a history curriculum, giving them full credit not as supplementary to history but as actors within history. These modules provide examples of the voices of Jewish women on the Freedom Rides, Jewish women making pivotal decisions in the court system, Jewish women advocating in solidarity with oppressed workers, and so much more. And they present these Jewish women not just because they are women and therefore have to be included, but because these women shaped history and the history of these social movements simply cannot be taught in a comprehensive way without including Jewish women.
I left the conference inspired by the educators I worked with over the week, by the work of the Jewish Women’s Archive, whose website provides a tremendous depth and breadth of materials, and especially by the women of American Jewish history, whose vision and strength brought us to where we are today, and who serve as models for Jewish women and men who continue to strive to create a more just society. As we look back on the history of women in America, and especially as we prepare to celebrate the Women of Reform Judaism’s centennial, we should recognize the centrality of Jewish women to the history of Jews in America, and consider these women models as we assert our own significant and equal roles within Reform Judaism.
Jessica Kirzane is a long-time reader of the WRJ blog and a member of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in NYC. She is also a PhD student in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University, as well as an educator at the Rebecca and Israel Ivry Prozdor Hebrew High School at the Jewish Theological Seminary.