By Rabbi Rick Jacobs
For too much of Jewish history Jewish women did not count. Consider the opening of the Book of Exodus:
“Eleh sh’mot b’nai Yisrael – These are the names of the children of Israel.” (Exodus 1:1)
The text then goes on to name only the male children of Israel: Reuben, Simeon and Judah… but there is no mention of the female children of Israel. There definitely were many female children of Israel who were there but the opening of Exodus doesn’t see fit to mention them. The Biblical text seems to be telling us that: “girls don’t matter.
Pharaoh also believes that “girls don’t matter” as he commands the Hebrew midwives to kill only the Israelite boys as soon as they are born. Pharaoh is willing to let the Israelite girls live because they pose no threat. Pharoah, like so many others before and since, greatly underestimates the leadership strength of Jewish women.
A closer reading of Exodus reveals that the story of our liberation depends first and foremost upon strong, brave, God-fearing women. All of Jewish history would not have taken place had it not been for the women. Moses and so many others would never have lived if it hadn’t been for Shifra, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam and Batya.
During this year in which we joyously celebrate WRJ’s Centennial, we must make sure that in recounting the history of our Reform Movement we properly recall “Eleh sh’mot b’not Yisrael” – the names of the strong, courageous, visionary women of NFTS/WRJ who were loving midwives and nurturers of this great Movement that continues to re-shape Jewish life for the better.
Wise, Kohler, Eisendrath, Plaut, Schindler and Yoffie are the names that come to mind when we think about the founding and expansion of our Reform Movement but we would do well to add the names of Carrie O. Simon, the first president of NFTS, together with the many who followed in her footsteps, including, among others, Norma Levitt, Constance Kreshtool, Dolores Wilkenfeld, Judith Hertz, Judith Rosenkranz, Judith Silverman, Helene Waranch, Rosanne Selfon and WRJ’s current president, Lynn Magid Lazar. And the professional leaders of WRJ–from the remarkable, essential Jane Evans (who served from 1933-1976) to our current executive director, Rabbi Marla Feldman–who have shaped this remarkably wise and effective organization of Jewish women.
WRJ raised the funds and built a dormitory at HUC in Cincinnati along with funding many scholarships to help generations of rabbis prepare for careers of Jewish service. WRJ raised the funds and lobbied to build our first New York headquarters at 838 Fifth Avenue. NFTY, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and our Israel Movement also have been the beneficiaries of WRJ’s generosity and vision. Today, generous funding from WRJ provides scholarships for many of our Movement’s young people to attend URJ camps and Israel programs, as well as supports some of our newest initiatives, including the Campaign for Youth Engagement. Quite simply, we would not be the vital Movement we are today without the many gifts of WRJ.
But NFTS/WRJ also were the voice of conscience of our Movement as they spoke up for civil rights, fair employment practices, child labor legislation and the elimination of capital punishment to name just a few of the social justice causes they helped champion.
And WRJ has brilliantly re-invented itself to keep pace with the changing lives of women and congregations. Sisterhoods remain a vital part of nearly 500 congregations, supporting youth scholarships, religious schools, capital campaigns, and countless other facets of synagogue life. During my tenure as the rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, I was privileged to partner regularly with our chapter of WRJ. How blessed I have been—and continue to be—to work closely with WRJ leaders who embody Reform Judaism’s ideals of innovation, learning, creativity and commitment. Without a doubt, WRJ is an exceedingly important force for growth and regeneration in our Reform Movement.
During this WRJ Centennial year we are so grateful for the tremendous role WRJ has played in enabling the URJ to come so far. In the coming years, as we work to reimagine Jewish life in North America, I envision that WRJ certainly will play an important role in charting the journey ahead.
Eleh sh’mot b’not Yisrael – These are the names of valiant, wise, visionary and generous Women of Reform Judaism who have helped bring us to our current numeric and spiritual strength.
May the Holy One of Blessing continue to bless the inspiring Women of Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Richard Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.