Was the winter issue of Kolot, the magazine of the Conservative movement, “stooping to sensationalism” or raising questions about women wearing tefillin?

Those were the questions asked in a letter to the editor by Conservative women rabbis in response to the magazine’s cover picture of two women holding hands while wearing tefillin. The letter called the photograph “disturbing and beneath the magazine that represents the unified voice of our movement.”


“As Conservative rabbis we seek to normalize both the wearing of tefillin and the reality of women rabbis,” the letter said. “Disembodying the women on the cover and sexualizing the wearing of tefillin feeds into the fears and anxieties that many in our movement have about observant women and women rabbis.”


Rabbi Francine Roston of South Orange, N.J., said she wrote the letter and that 60 colleagues signed it before she sent it to the magazine last Friday. 


“Many of my congregants looked at the photo and assumed it was a picture for a story on homosexuality and Conservative Judaism,” she wrote. “Imagine our surprise when inside we found stories about
tefillin and a story about women rabbis in the movement and the challenges they face.”


One of those who signed the letter, Rabbi Susan Grossman of Columbia, Md., said she too had assumed the photo was to illustrate “an article about our movement’s welcoming of gays. … What makes the women rabbis uncomfortable is that it sexualizes the wearing of tefillin.”


She pointed out that in the 1960s through ‘90s, literature in the Orthodox world that spoke of women asking for the right to wear tefillin labeled them “as women who are licentious.”


“That is what made me concerned — that here we are tapping into this kind of cultural discomfort about women taking on what had been historically seen as a male-only ritual,” she said. “Therefore, it muddied the conversation about women in the rabbinate.”


Rabbi Howard Buechler of Dix Hills, L.I., said the photo and the way it was edited 
“creates a negative stereotype of women rabbis and demeans them.”


But Rabbi Faith Cantor of Baltimore disagreed, saying she was not offended by the photo.


“We’re a movement that celebrates exclusivity and we’re flipping out on this?” she asked. “I don’t see that picture as sexual.”


Joanne Palmer, editor of Kolot, said she and fellow editor Rhonda Jacobs Kahn were surprised by all the fuss because they believed the photo “we picked was a compelling and attractive image of friendship.”

“It was a picture of two women who wanted to show friendship and we wanted a good picture,” she added. “We saw nothing sexual about it. We liked the fact they were wearing tefillin, and believed it was a compelling image that would lead people to pick up the magazine — which is what editors want.”