She grew up the only child in a celebrated Jewish household, steeped in the seeming contradictions of conservative Hasidic faith and liberal social fervor. While her father, the prominent theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, marched with Martin Luther King, brought Father Daniel Berrigan to their Manhattan home for dinner and broke ranks with coreligionists in calling for legalized abortion, Susannah Heschel was finding her own cause.
It confronted her in her Yeshiva classroom, where girls were sent to sewing classes while boys studied for bar mitzvah; in the morning prayers in which observant Jewish males thank God daily for not making them women, and in the synagogue where women neither led prayers nor were counted in the quorum of 10 worshippers needed for religious service (practices the elder Heschel quietly rebelled against at home).
Once, her father caught her brooding to see an indifferent male friend swept up into a snaking cordon of Simchas Torah dancers while she was consigned to the sidelines with her mother and female friends. "My father came over to me with his Torah scroll. He knew how I felt. He started dancing with me. It was such a wonderful thing for him to have done."
Rabbi Heschel's unexpected death when Susannah was 19 removed the last buffer.
Although she was the only child, a male cousin was chosen instead to say kaddish, the obligatory daily prayer of the first year of mourning.
Heschel vowed to say it anyway, but was unprepared for the difficulties she would encounter. Once, traveling home from college, she stopped at a congregation in New Haven, Conn., meeting in a classroom. "They said, 'We're sorry, but we don't have a mehitzah [barrier to separate men from women] here. We have no place for you, so you'll have to leave. We cannot pray as long as you remain in here.' "
"I was devastated," says Heschel. "There I was, all alone in a strange town, and instead of being welcomed, I was asked to leave, especially at a time like that, being vulnerable and in mourning . . . That's when I started to realize about being an Other."
Despite the harshness of her words, the speaker is no apostate. Nor were most of the 230 women and a sprinkling of men who recently heard Heschel, now 29 and a doctoral candidate in religion at the University of Pennsylvania, open the first major Washington conference on the feminist impact on Judaism. Participants young and old, from both the Jewish mainstream and more radical perspectives, voiced passionate feelings for the tradition whose long patriarchal dominance they are challenging.
Here as elsewhere, growing numbers of Jewish women are responding to the complaints of authors like Cynthia Ozick, who writes: "In the world at large I call myself, and am called, a Jew. But when, on the Sabbath, I sit among women in my traditional shul and the rabbi speaks the word 'Jew,' I can be sure that he is not referring to me . . .
"When my rabbi says, 'A Jew is called to the Torah,' he never means me or any other living Jewish woman."
Discrimination also carries over into personal, legal and social realms: In Jewish law, only men can sue for divorce; a woman is not free to remarry without her former husband's consent. Tradition teaches the female body is impure and untouchable for half of each month (although defenders argue this exalts, rather than discriminates against, women). Some educators blame the pervasive stereotype of the vain, materialistic Jewish American Princess partly on the restrictive social role accorded women in Jewish history.
The kinds of questions many Jewish women are raising about theology, liturgy, history and religious teachings are much like those facing Protestant and Catholic activists, a few of whom attended the Washington conference. They listened sympathetically as Jewish participants spoke urgently of a need to reconcile their feminism with their Judaism.
"Parts of me want to feel good about being a Jew and feel that it's fair to women, and I guess I don't really feel that," said Cece Lobin of Takoma Park.
But on how to achieve this goal, there is no consensus. How much change Judaism can absorb and still remain intrinsically Jewish divides the most committed Jewish feminists. At the extremes, the debate pits those determined to save traditional forms -- invested with fresh meaning -- against those willing to go outside the tradition to create new practices.
An Orthodox woman, a member of the branch of Judaism that interprets religious law most narrowly, said the answer lies within Orthodoxy: "Until women become more active in Orthodox Judaism, how can you expect the laws to change?"
Heschel refuses to be bound by Halachah (Jewish law): "One time I thought it would be really great to have Rabbi [Moshe] Feinstein or Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik [two leading American Orthodox rabbis] say it's okay for women to be counted in a minyan [religious quorum]. Then I realized I wouldn't accept 'no' for an answer."
Conservative Judaism's decisions in 1973 to permit the counting of women in minyans, subject to the approval of individual congregations, and in October 1983 to ordain women as rabbis have made her stand less lonely.
There is a wide spectrum, too, of more radical answers on how to achieve change.
Fabrangen, a nontraditional Washington congregation, has conducted new religious ceremonies -- such as one celebrating weaning -- based on Biblical accounts. Says member Ronnie Levin, 33, a policy analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency, who describes herself as both a "traditional Jew" and "card-carrying feminist":
"A lot of people think this is a radical thing we've done, but in fact, many people don't realize the bar mitzvah ceremony originated only in the 15th century. Kaddish was not said as a memorial prayer until after the Crusades. Yizkor [a memorial service] was not said until well into the Middle Ages."
A Takoma Park mental health counselor has done work with Jewish groups involving dance movements and "self-blessings on being female." Lesbian Jewish groups here are calling on the mainstream Jewish community to recognize them as full and equal members. Heschel spoke of a Philadelphia congregation that prays to Elilah, a feminine form of the male God Elohim of Jewish tradition.
At such moves, many otherwise supportive observers balk. Warns Gerry Serotta, Hillel rabbi at George Washington University: "There's the possibility of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There is a possibility of some kind of excess. God has to be beyond human experience or we're talking about some kind of paganism or self-worship."
But unlike those who blame Jewish feminists wholesale for such varied offenses as undermining the Jewish family, emasculating Jewish men and threatening the integrity of Jewish law, Serotta also sees promise in their efforts:
"I think there is something in it for us as Jewish men. Jewish men have their own stereotypes as achievers, as intellectuals. There are certain pressures placed on us by our culture, and feminism is about liberating people from stereotypes. It promises that for men as well as women."
Advocates say there is historical basis for an expanded women's role. From the Talmud comes the example of Rabbi Meir's wife Bruriah, a second-century scholar; and a 19th-century Ukrainian woman known as the Maid of Ludomir reportedly prayed with talles and tfillin (prayer shawl and phylacteries, traditionally worn by men), said kaddish for her father and had a court of followers.
The Bible also is cited as evidence. "It is clear," says Esther Ticktin, a Washington psychotherapist and Fabrangen member, "that the women in the Bible, especially in Genesis, are not the hidden-away, obedient wives of later tradition."
In the decade or so since its emergence in New York, the feminist movement already has produced some dramatic and visible change. A number of Washington area Havurot -- egalitarian religious groups that function without a rabbi -- have experimented with new customs and revised prayers. Even decidedly nontraditional groups like Fabrangen, Kehila Chadasha and Bet Mishpachah, a gay congregation, find it sometimes hard to break with the past.
"I have a hard time changing things, prayers I've said 30,000 times," admits Ronnie Levin of Fabrangen. "For all of a sudden to change the words to that, it just doesn't flow off my rational brain. But I think if we want it to be around in the next generation, we have to start in a very serious way, or our daughters and granddaughters will tell us this is just too much hocus-pocus for them."
Even in the Orthodox movement, there has been some change. Girls and adult women now are encouraged to study Jewish law; some women have formed minyans for their own separate services. But Orthodox women like Sara A. Creeger, 32, of College Park, say feminist emphasis on change in the synagogue overlooks women's importance to more fundamental home-based observances.
The Reform movement, the most liberal religiously of the main Jewish branches, has ordained women as rabbis since 1972. The Reconstructionist movement, begun as an offshoot of Conservatism, started training women as rabbis in 1968.
At some of the area's Conservative synagogues, women now are called to the Torah and counted in minyans, while girls' bat mitzvah ceremonies are treated as seriously as boys' bar mitzvahs. Men and women generally sit together during services.
A rising number of adult bat mitzvahs has been cited as evidence of a rekindling of interest in adult Jewish learning by women. Even at more traditional synagogues still debating an expanded ritual role for women, women have served as synagogue presidents.
The recent installation of Avis Miller as the third rabbi at Adas Israel, the city's largest Conservative congregation, made the 39-year-old mother of five the only woman rabbi for a Conservative pulpit in the Washington area and one of only four in the country.
Miller, now in her fourth year of rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, says her decision to enter the rabbinate met with initial disbelief from family and friends. After a traditional religious upbringing, "It was not an easy transition for me to make. My students know that I have a certain ambivalence about ending all distinction between men's and women's roles."
While many observant Jews still are resistant to the idea of a female rabbi -- some have asked not to have a woman officiate at their weddings, for example -- Rabbi Miller says she has encountered "no serious ideological resistance."
"I will get an occasional cutesy comment. I don't consider that a problem. I just change the subject. Frankly, most of what rabbis do involves teaching and counseling, areas that have traditionally been perceived as female roles anyhow."
Rabbi Roz Gold, 35, serving her fourth year at the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, a Reform temple in Reston, is one of some 70 women rabbis nationwide. She says she is encouraged by reconsiderations of Jewish tradition.
"Judaism has always changed and developed and adapted and taken things from surrounding cultures. Clearly there's an importance essence of Judaism we don't want to ignore and we have to be careful anytime we make any change in tradition, but I think it can't help but enrich Jewish life if women can become more involved in Jewish life and the Jewish community."