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Shari Rabin is the author of  Jews on the Fron­tier: Reli­gion and Mobil­i­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, win­ner of the 2017 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Amer­i­can Jew­ish Stud­ies. She is writ­ing here as part of Jew­ish Book Council’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

One day, while read­ing in the Domes­tic Record” sec­tion of the Amer­i­can Israelite news­pa­per, I stum­bled upon a local report that shocked me. It was an 1860 trav­el report writ­ten by Rab­bi Isaac May­er Wise (founder of the Amer­i­can Israelite) from Lafayette, Indiana:

I am sor­ry to say, that the Haz­an fre­quent­ly finds no minyan (ten male adults) in the Syn­a­gogue on Sab­bath, I, there­fore, instruct­ed him to count the ladies to a minyan, not to sus­pend the divine ser­vice, as the act of con­firm­ing girls puts an end to the idea that females are not mem­bers of the Syn­a­gogue as well as males.

In 1860, women were being count­ed in a minyan, a prac­tice that was only affirmed in pro­gres­sive Jew­ish move­ments over a cen­tu­ry lat­er! It did not sur­prise me that women were active in a con­gre­ga­tion. Jew­ish women through­out the Unit­ed States raised mon­ey and attend­ed wor­ship in larg­er num­bers than did men. Jew­ish men exu­ber­ant­ly praised women in the Jew­ish press for their ded­i­ca­tion and ser­vice; Wise him­self lat­er argued in the West­ern Jour­nal that ladies uphold Judaism.”And yet, as a whole, Amer­i­can Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tions in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry were far from inclu­sive. Women could not be mem­bers, nor serve on boards, and they often sat in cramped bal­conies. Although wid­ows some­times enjoyed their own con­gre­ga­tion­al sta­tus, for most women, access to seats, edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren, and bur­ial plots were grant­ed through their hus­bands or fathers. So how did women come to be count­ed in a minyan? And what can it tell us about in the dynam­ics of women in Amer­i­can Judaism?

Accord­ing to Wise, count­ing women in a minyan was his idea, an obvi­ous out­growth of the egal­i­tar­i­an prin­ci­ples rep­re­sent­ed in the Con­fir­ma­tion cer­e­mo­ny. And yet, Wise was vis­it­ing town briefly, so he like­ly got his infor­ma­tion — and pos­si­bly the sug­ges­tion — from local con­gre­gants them­selves. Wise appar­ent­ly made the final call, but this opin­ion was not one he repeat­ed par­tic­u­lar­ly loud­ly. I found almost no oth­er ref­er­ences in his news­pa­per to count­ing women in a minyan, except for one, from Keokuk, Iowa, in Novem­ber 1875. That year, cor­re­spon­dent F.B.” wrote to the Amer­i­can Israelite:

[T]he ladies, both old and young…attend the divine ser­vice very reg­u­lar­ly on Fri­day evening, as well as on Sab­bath morn­ing, on hol­i­days and on all oth­er spe­cial occa­sions. They feel well pleased because we adopt­ed the rule to open divine ser­vice if ten ladies are present, as well as if ten men are present. Many a time we could not open at all if we had to wait for our men, who always make the well-known excuse: We like to come, but we can not lose the best busi­ness day in the week, so we can not leave the store.’

There is lit­tle detail in this account about who ini­ti­at­ed this inno­va­tion — did the women make the case or did the men uni­lat­er­al­ly bestow the priv­i­lege upon them? Though they wrote to his paper, they did not ask Wise for his opin­ion, nor does it seem that they were aware of his ear­li­er move in Lafayette.

The Jews of Lafayette and Keokuk faced a com­mon prob­lem for syn­a­gogues in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. Work was dis­cour­aged, if not legal­ly for­bid­den, on Sun­days in many Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties; and most Jews, who were not wealthy enough to allow for two days of rest, felt com­pelled to work on Sat­ur­days. For these small mid­west­ern con­gre­ga­tions, count­ing women in a minyan was a prag­mat­ic solu­tion. Although this was very uncom­mon and seemed to have had lit­tle broad­er impact, these exam­ples are instruc­tive. They teach us that Jews in the past were more diverse and flex­i­ble than con­tem­po­rary inter­preters of tra­di­tion” would have it. And they show that for those seek­ing reli­gious rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties with­in their com­mu­ni­ties, show­ing up is half the battle.

Shari Rabin is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Direc­tor of the Pearlstine/​Lipov Cen­ter for South­ern Jew­ish Cul­ture at the Col­lege of Charleston. She is a his­to­ri­an of Amer­i­can reli­gions and mod­ern Judaism, spe­cial­iz­ing in the nine­teenth century.

Shari Rabin is the author of Jews on the Fron­tier: Reli­gion and Mobil­i­ty in Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (NYU Press, 2017). She is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish Stud­ies and Direc­tor of the Pearlstine/​Lipov Cen­ter for South­ern Jew­ish Cul­ture at the Col­lege of Charleston. She is a his­to­ri­an of Amer­i­can reli­gions and mod­ern Judaism, spe­cial­iz­ing in the nine­teenth century.