When Jody Cohen was appointed Associate Rabbi to the Congregation Beth Israel in West Harford, Conn., in 1984, she became the first woman in Connecticut to serve a synagogue in that position. She later became the first woman to have an extended tenure as rabbi of her own congregation.
Cohen was born and raised in Newark, N.J. She received her B.A. in political science from Mt. Holyoke College and her M.A. in Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College. She was ordained in May 1984 and came to Connecticut to serve as Associate Rabbi and Educator to the Congregation Beth Israel. When she began this position, she was also the new mother of a 5-month-old for whom her husband was the primary caregiver. While there, she established Noah's Ark Day Care Center, which was the first synagogue-run daycare center in North America for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years.
She authored an article on Noah's Ark, which was published in Compass magazine, and she has spoken nationally about the project. Cohen was the first recipient of the Hartford College for Women's Pioneer Woman Award (1985), organized the first Conference for Clergywomen of Greater Hartford (1986), and from 1991-1993 was co-president of the Women's Rabbinic Network, a national organization of reform women rabbis.
In 1989, Cohen became Rabbi of her own congregation, Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, Conn. In February 1993, she co-led an interfaith tour to Israel with a local minister, and in March of that year hosted the first AIDS interfaith healing service at a synagogue in the greater Hartford area. Rabbi Cohen served as the solo rabbi and educator for the Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor until 1995. After moving to Florida with her husband, Moshe Cohen-Gavarian, and two sons, Rabbi Cohen served for nine years as the regional director for the Union for Reform Judaism for the Southeast United States. In that role, she operated as the liaison for the Reform movement to almost 100 congregations. From 2007-2012, she was the spiritual leader for Temple Israel of Greater Miami. Rabbi Cohen now heads her own company focused on services for the elderly.
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.