Kolot: From Student Initiative to Fully Functioning Center
By Rabbi Liz Bolton, '96, and Rabbi Margot Stein, '97
The Jewish Women's Studies Project was launched in part because a critical mass of women students at the RRC was attained with the entering class in the fall of '89—eight of nine Preparatory (now called Mechina) Year students. About half of the Biblical Year students were women, as well, putting the balance slightly over 50% women in the school. We were joining a strong contingent of feminists who had been there and influenced the school during the previous years.
The formal impetus came from a women's Sukkot ritual, created by Helen Nakdimen. It included reclaiming a daring vow gesture that literally emulated the biblical phrase referring to touching one's thigh while making a pledge (a gesture of machismo). The poster that announced the event – open to all women students – outlined four points about transforming the culture of the college, and our studies, precisely because of the strong women's/feminist presence.
That event coincided with a more crowded, well-attended meeting of women students at the apartment of Sharon Stiefel that addressed some of the more concrete and political issues at the college.
Throughout that year, a group of women met and strategized. The following fall (1990) they prepared proposals to both the RSA and the faculty to establish the Jewish Women's Studies Project. The committee structure was actually modeled on that of the Liaison Committee (three students, three faculty). Reena Spicehandler, Gail Beitman (now Goldie Milgram), and Margot Stein were central to that effort.
JWSP was formally launched, with Gail as the first chairperson. Two of the most successful early initiatives, were an all-day session for men and women separately (the women's included wonderful exercises, led by Gail Burstyn, now Diamond, about visioning our careers; the first curriculum consultation with an outside expert. Judith Baskin, Ph.D. spoke at a College Time program, and met individually with the core directors to look at their syllabi from a Jewish Women's Studies perspective. Other activities during this time included other college time events and speakers, poster "actions," and the launching of the Shulamit Magnus annual lecture in JWS.
The first of those was held to directly honor Shulamit in the spring she was leaving the college. It was a beautiful event, held at Beth Am Israel, that included an original song composed and presented by Sharon Cohen (now Sharon Cohen Anisfeld). Each year that followed, a local woman, sometimes two, was honored, and a national speaker who somehow related to her field, interests, or style was invited to speak; the event usually included fine food and music. Over the years, these events often were held at the National Museum of American Jewish History, with support from Margo Bloom. The events were meant to be the project’s most important fundraising initiative, as well as an important opportunity for public/community visibility.
Other grand plans, such as colloquia, a journal, and such were discussed. The broadest project the JWSP ever undertook was a juried art exhibit, with submissions from across the US. The show was held at the Borowsky art gallery at the Gershman Y. It was launched during the second year of the project and chaired by Sharon Stiefel. Sonya Starr was the paid student intern that year. Elisa Goldberg was the next student intern, during the year Liz Bolton chaired ('92-'93). Mona Decker was the next chairperson. Faculty members those years included Jacob Staub and Linda Holtzman.
Each year, JWSP would also sponsor a mini-course, as well as speakers for College Time programs. Those on the steering committee were concerned with acquiring some kind of directorial oversight, to help the project to keep growing and implementing the changes that were well under way in the college community. In 1996, when Lori Lefkovitz, Ph.D., moved to Philadelphia, she was invited to address the college community on “Eve in the Semiotic Garden.”
During that lecture, which was vivid, inspiring, feminist, literary and grounded in theory, Myriam Klotz and Margot Stein conferred with each other about Lori as a possible director for the JWSP. Margot immediately got up from her seat and spoke in the back of the room to David Teutsch (then president of RRC), and the two of them began to strategize about how to bring in funding to create such a position.
Subsequently, Margot invited Juliet Spitzer, Sally Gottesman and Barbara Dobkin to consider joining with her in this project. Sally became the eventual Advisory Board Chair of the project, which became Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies. Barbara remained a silent partner, and Juliet joined the Advisory Board, as did Margot. Margot, Lori, Sally and Juliet, along with student and faculty representatives and, occasionally, consultant Ilene Wasserman, began to meet regularly over take-out sushi dinners in Juliet’s office, plotting the formalization of the Center, designing its mission, objectives and goals, and beginning to invite others to join them in this endeavor.
And the rest…is herstory!
NOTE: At the end of the 2010 academic year, Lefkovitz accepted a position as Ruderman Chair in Jewish Studies at Northeastern University. Read her farewell letter to RRC. The acting director of Kolot is Rabbi Sarra Lev, '96, Ph.D.