Valerie Leibler was a new member of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in the early 1970s, and she heard occasional remarks about the women’s role in the Conservative synagogue. The congregation allowed women to open the ark and read some English prayers from the bima, innovations at the time.
"There was a very, very quiet push for women to do more ritually in the shul," she says. Not an organized campaign: "it was pre-feminism."
Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, the congregation’s spiritual leader, asked Leibler to read the haftarah one Shabbat in 1979. "A few people walked out," she recalls.
Most were unsure about the new step to "egalitarian" worship. "You can’t do this without process," they told her. Egalitarianism went away.
Today Leibler is president of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, the synagogue is fully egalitarian and unlike many other Conservative congregations split or weakened by the move from traditional to egalitarian ritual practices, the synagogue remains intact.
Membership, as high as 1,800 families some 40 years ago, has remained constant at about 850 during the last decade, says Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, who succeeded Rabbi Bokser and has served 19 years at the synagogue. It was Rabbi Skolnik who guided its change to egalitarianism.
Like his congregants, he emphasizes that the change (ultimately their decision) was slow, allowing time for members to express their opinions. The key, everyone agrees, is the process.
For Rabbi Skolnik, the egalitarianism issue became personal. His daughter Leora prepared to read the Torah at Junior Congregation in 1988, and she faced the prospect of being unable to do so for the full congregation after bat mitzvah a few years later, so occasionally he would prod his congregation to take a stand.
The rabbi issued a formal challenge in 1993. During a Shabbat morning sermon he said, "precisely when she comes of age Jewishly, precisely at that moment when Leora, like so many other b’not mitzvah, will hear a speech from her rabbi/father about responsibility for and participation in her community, that same community which was able to understand and applaud her accomplishment in Junior Congregation will just as reflexively disenfranchise her as an equal participant in synagogue ritual.
"Rabbi Skolnik announced that a subcommittee of the congregation’s ritual committee would begin deliberations on women receiving aliyahs and reading from the Torah, practices ruled permissible under Jewish law by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
"I threw down the gauntlet to the shul," he says. "I thought it was time for them to deal with the issue once and for all."
"It created quite a conversation," the rabbi adds.
At his urging, a subsequent subcommittee considered counting women in a minyan and letting them serve as shaliach tzibur, leader of communal prayers.
All the changes were approved: over four years."I made it very clear," Rabbi Skolnik says, "that I wasn’t interested in staying here if the shul didn’t deal with these issues. Of course it was beyond my daughter: it was about all the girls."
The rabbi stresses that his effort to make his congregation egalitarian is part of his overall work to make the Forest Hills Jewish Center more traditional. He has instituted a full musaf on Shabbat and the appropriate readings on holidays.
"I have worked very hard to make egalitarianism not be the measure by which the posture of the shul is to be measured," he says.
The process began.
The subcommittee was evenly split between members for and against the changes. In general, older members, including women who grew up in more traditional backgrounds and "never felt disenfranchised" by gender divisions of ritual practice, initially did not support the changes as strongly as younger members, Leibler says.
Though no formal polling of members was done and no open meeting of the entire congregation was held, views of both sides were solicited. Rabbi Skolnik, in formal and informal discussions with congregants, explained his position.
"It was not a fiat," says a longtime Jewish Center member who was close to the decision-making process. "There was a lot of education."
A monthly egalitarian minyan that met for about three years never grew into a weekly service; there was no pressure to expand a service that would split the congregation and weaken the main service, Leibler says. "It’s a very close-knit community."
People were willing to see the other side," she says of the civil tone of the discussions cited by members on both sides of the issue.
Joe Fox had "reservations" about some of the proposed ritual changes but says "there was a great deal of sensitivity."
"They were looking for all viewpoints," he says.
Fox made his views known to the subcommittee, he says. He still is an active member of the synagogue.
"Everyone wanted to see this institution" (the largest Conservative synagogue in Queens) "standing at the end of the day.
"Only one member is known to have left the synagogue, joining a nearby Orthodox shul, because of the egalitarianism issue, Rabbi Skolnik says.
The changes reflected the opinions of the entire congregation, he says. Shabbat morning services still draw 350 to 500 worshipers, and friendships across the traditional/egalitarian divide have continued.
"I don’t think it had an effect. It hasn’t hurt our membership," the rabbi says.
"You can’t be more successful than that," says Bruce Greenfield, executive director of the New York Metropolitan Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "It’s absolutely a model for a congregations that finds a way not to split the congregation.
"The key to success was the slow process. The process evolved over time," Greenfield says. "The members had an opportunity to discuss it. When a synagogue follows a process of education, the congregation is more willing to accept this move."
One congregant in favor of egalitarianism says the change came too slowly for some and too fast for others.
"Sometimes we knew a compromise was right because both sides were unsatisfied," this member said.
The Forest Hills Jewish Center is debating another ritual issue these days: Should the cantor, who faces the congregation, turn in the other direction, as in more traditional synagogues?
"We’re attempting to discuss it in the same way," Leibler says. "We’re doing it slowly."
Steve Lipman can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.