Centennial Anne Lapidus Lerner:
Jewish Feminist and
“Open Door Dean”
As the only woman on many faculty and administrative committees at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1970s, Anne Lapidus Lerner remembers sitting at a curriculum committee meeting where she said she made a “crazy proposal” to launch a Jewish Women’s Studies Program.
“Somebody raised their hand and said, ‘Does that mean we should also have a men’s studies program?’” she said. “I just looked at him and said, ‘That’s what we have!’ Everyone smiled and I got my program.”
That is classic Lerner—a Jewish Studies scholar, a passionate Hebrew speaker, and a feminist pioneer. Lerner credits her love of Hebrew language and Jewish learning, and her bravado to ensure that women, along with men, share that love of Judaism and Torah, to her formative years at Hebrew College.
Lapidus developed a passion for Hebrew as a child growing up in a Zionist family on Elm Hill Avenue in Roxbury, near Hebrew College’s Crawford Street campus, where her great-uncle, Dr. Leon Medalia was the founding president. She was taught by her mother, who attended Hebrew College for a few years and was a teacher at Girls Latin, because her ophthalmologist told her that her vision wasn’t strong enough for Hebrew school.
When she enrolled in Prozdor in eighth grade—then a Hebrew-only environment—she solidified her career goal. She knew she wanted to teach Hebrew.
“There was an excitement to being at Hebrew College, and about learning so much, as there was a lot to learn,” she said. “I had a Talmud teacher whom I adored. I wanted to share my excitement with other students, to model my love of Judaism, love of Torah, love of literature, love of Hebrew language. Those were all part of my Hebrew College experience.”
Lerner spent three years at Prozdor while attending Girl’s Latin and then Brookline High School, and continued her Hebrew College studies at Radcliffe College, where she received bachelor’s degrees from both schools. She went on to receive two master’s degrees, one from Harvard in comparative literature and one from Hebrew College in Jewish History, and then a doctorate in comparative literature, where she majored in French, from Harvard.
As a graduate student, she approached the Hebrew College dean to ask if she could teach. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of other American-born Hebrew College instructors—including Arnold Band, Walter Ackerman, and Charlie Berlin. His response surprised her: “a woman gets married.”
“It was an irregular verb, and his tone of voice was distinct,” said Lerner. “I replied, with the correct verb form, ‘a man doesn’t get married?’ That was totally chutzpadik, and I didn’t mean to be so nervy. It was not going to help the situation. But I got the job!”
It was this independent spirit, along with her passion for Hebrew and Jewish studies, that led Lerner to become one of the first female professors at Hebrew College, the first American woman on the full-time faculty at Jewish Theological Seminary, and the first female vice-chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, as well as a trailblazer in the fields of Jewish Studies, Jewish literature, Jewish gender and women’s studies, and religion.
“I don’t know if I was the first female teacher at Hebrew College. But I do know that the school offered an opportunity for women to get a solid Jewish education in a way that was hard to come by in those days,” she said. “The romance of Hebrew College, of being with peers who were interested in Hebrew and other Jewish things, together with my home life, formed my love of Hebrew and Hebrew literature. The immersive effect of Hebrew College, it wasn’t just a course here or there, it was basically an experience.”
Lerner taught at Hebrew College from 1963 to 1969, and then moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, where she started as an undergraduate Hebrew language and literature instructor. Her Hebrew was so strong from her years at Hebrew College that then-chancellor Louis Finkelstein assumed she was Israeli.
She remembers the first time that she met Finkelstein. “He said he was glad to meet me and then he said to me in Hebrew, ‘What language should we speak,’ and I said, ‘it doesn’t matter to me.’ And we sat down in a huge table in his office, and he started speaking Hebrew,” she said. “Finally, Finkelstein then turned to me and asked me in Hebrew, ‘How do you like America?’ I said, ‘I’m from Boston.’… He didn’t know how to deal with the situation. It was funny because all the women on the faculty were Israelis teaching Hebrew language, so he assumed that I must be the same.”
Lerner became the first American-born woman offered a full-time position at JTS and later served as dean of JTS’ List College and associate dean of what is now known as the JTS Gershon Kekst Graduate School. In 1993, she was appointed Vice Chancellor, the first woman in the history of JTS—or any other Jewish institution of higher learning—to achieve this rank. She held the position until 1999.
During her tenure, she created JTS’s combined social work program with Columbia University and founded the Jewish Women’s Studies program. She also directed a Jewish feminist research group. Her study of the interaction between second generation feminists and American Judaism, “Who Has Not Made Me a Man: The Movement for Equal Rights for Women in American Judaism,” is a classic of American Jewish feminist history.
And just as she was inspired by her Hebrew College professors, Lerner became a mentor to generations of students. As dean at JTS, Lerner prided herself on being accessible to students—one former student called her the “open-door dean.” In 2014, she inaugurated the Paula E. Hyman Mentoring Program, in memory of a fellow Hebrew College alumna, JTS faculty member, Yale faculty member, and close friend, to provide mentors for emerging scholars in the fields of Jewish and gender studies.
“To share my excitement and love of what I was teaching is something I saw modeled all the time at Hebrew College,” said Lerner. “And the school offered an opportunity for women to get a solid Jewish education in a way that was hard to come by in those days. It was the early ‘60s and feminism was beginning to bubble up. It definitely helped shape my career and my life.”
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