Jewish feminism symposium hosts pioneers of the American and Jewish feminist movements
On Thursday, the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Jewish Communal Leadership Program and the School of Social Work hosted a symposium called “Jewish Feminisms/American Visions: Perspectives from Fifty Years of Activism.” The three-day conference features scholars in the field from institutions and organizations across the country. Panels covered topics including radical feminism, the #MeToo movement and Jewish identities, as well as the intersection between sexuality, politics and society with religion.
The event was inspired by the release of Joyce Antler’s book “Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement,” which presents testimonial research of Jewish women’s experiences as activists. Event coordinator Karla Goldman, a professor of social work and Judaic studies and the director of the Jewish Communal Leadership program, said the event was a historic gathering of pioneers of the American feminist movement and the Jewish influence in it.
“The people in the room are mind-blowing. These are some of the people who created American feminism, some of the people who created Jewish feminism those are incredible stories,” Goldman said. “The people who were part of the first women’s liberation activity in Ann Arbor, the people as they encountered at the University of Michigan and the challenges they brought forward, that’s a really interesting discussion.”
In a forum titled “Periphery and Core: The View from Ann Arbor,” panelists discussed how their time in Ann Arbor launched their career in women’s activism.
Debra Kaufman, former Northeastern University professor and co-founder and former director of the Jewish Studies Program at Northeastern, attended the University of Michigan during the 1950s as an undergraduate. She chronicled her experience with the dean of women in which the dean questioned her Jewish Sabbath practices and eating habits. The dean said, “When will you people (Jewish people) learn to stay where you belong?” which sparked her activism.
“That experience was my awakening, it was my coming of age — it pinpointed the moment in my life where I not only found my voice as a Jew but as a woman,” Kaufman said, “Little did I know that then I would come to tell this story today here on this campus some 50 years later. Little did I know it was to become part of a much larger story of anti-Semitism and sexism on this campus.”
Kaufman described the University’s policing of women at the time, regulating curfews and sending letters to families about their daughter’s private interactions with Jews.
“Little did I know, these racist and anti-Semitic charges against the dean of women were deeply embedded in the growing protest against the doctrine of impetus locus most clearly seen in the policing of women’s private lives on campus,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman said the dean was eventually fired and the Office of Women abolished. Kaufman felt she made a difference in that movement with letters to the administration she and other community members authored. However, she credited this action to the work of the then-editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, who critiqued the sexist nature of impetus locus and treatment of women.
“Little did I know, at my one small challenge of authority by turning around and walking out the door (of the dean of women’s office), I was to begin a lifelong journey of intersecting identities as a Jew and a feminist, sometimes in conflict with one another, sometimes in concert with one another, rarely as binaries and always fluid,” Kaufman said.
Karen Brodkin, professor emerita of anthropology and former director of the Women’s Studies Program at the University of California, Los Angeles, attended the University of Michigan for one year as a graduate student in anthropology. She said while Judaism is part of her identity, women’s activism is at the heart of her work. She then took a job at Oakland University as a professor, where she also worked to unite the women of the university. In the 1960s and ’70s, she worked with a Protestant minister to start an abortion network in Canada and Michigan.
“What Ann Arbor gave me was a platform of support or a cocoon for organizing at Oakland University,” Brodkin said. “There was a lot of stuff happening there, there were a lot of women returning to school at the time.”
Ellen Meeropol came to Ann Arbor in 1968 at the age of 21 to live with her boyfriend. She considered herself to be on the borderline between artist and political activist. In Ann Arbor, she worked as a secretary to earn money so she could finish her education at the University. When she moved to Ann Arbor, her boyfriend and future husband told her his parents were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Jewish American couple convicted and executed by the U.S. government for Soviet Union espionage. Meeropol said this discovery profoundly impacted her sense of Judaism. She set her sights on anti-Vietnam war and feminist activism, noticing its intersection with her Jewish identity.
“I don’t remember feeling like my Jewish background had a lot to do with my feminism,” Meeropol said. “But I do remember looking around a room one day at a women’s group and realizing that the women I loved and admired most in my life were Jewish.”
Rayna Rapp, a professor at New York University, joined the University of Michigan community as a freshman in 1964. Rapp said she came from activist parents in New York and initially got involved in a voter registration campaign for women in Ypsilanti. She also collaborated with other groups including Quakers and Protestants in her activist experience and women’s studies work.
“We (Rapp and Meeropol) stayed active throughout our undergraduate years,” Rapp said. “I cannot convey to you … how intense that burning was. We felt personally responsible for ending injustice. I didn’t have the word ‘tikkun’— healing the world — at my disposal, but that was exactly where we were.”
Rapp explored the oppression experienced by others and worked with women and mothers of oppressed identities.
“It was an important moment of self-help and in the process — we founded Women’s Studies,” Rapp said. “I understood that we were Jewish in a sense of sharing a tremendous sense of being silenced and felt marginalized knowing it could erupt, rationally, viciously and murderously, at any turn of the corner anyone could be hit by (oppression) we learned to identify with others who had that experience or could.”
Social Work student Rachel Wall attended the event to feel connected to the women who began the movement.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to feel like we are a part of this history of Jewish feminism and to understand how we, as current students and future leaders, continue this legacy,” Well said to The Daily. “The reason I am able to be a Jewish woman who cares about feminist issues and cares about social justice issues is because of the work these actual women actually did over the last 50 years and to be in this room talking to each other and to hear how far back their connections go is really inspiring.”
Goldman highlighted how additional features of the symposium involved the identities of other Jewish feminists.
“Putting a spotlight on the lesbian contribution to Jewish feminism and how a lot of these women, in some ways were not even seen in the Jewish community, pushed it to ask new questions to change the culture, change the thought about theology,” Goldman said. “Women who are lesbians were the first to ask really challenging questions of the community — (we hope) to bring that out and not to bury it.”
Meeropol reflected on the mission of the panel and how Ann Arbor impacted the future of their activism.
“Feminism in Ann Arbor might have been in the periphery,” Meeropol said. “But we felt that like we were in the center of it all, we read all of those books and articles, we were women warriors and were doing it right here.