Barriers broken, female rabbis look to broader influence
Lynne Kern knew at 13 that she wanted to be a rabbi, even though in 1970 there were no female rabbis to act as role models.
So Kern became a writer, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
But she never forgot her passion, and in 2001 she completed her rabbinic studies and was ordained as a Conservative rabbi at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Now, four decades since her bat mitzvah, Kern is working with filmmaker Ronda Spinak on a documentary about female rabbis. Kern was behind the camera in Boston last week filming a panel discussion by the first four women to become rabbis in their respective denominations.
The latest addition to the group was Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who had the title, a feminized version of “rabbi,” conferred upon her about a year ago by a Modern Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss.
The Dec. 6 event was the first time that the four women—Hurwitz, Reform Rabbi Sally Priesand, Reconstructionist Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Conservative Rabbi Amy Eilberg – had ever appeared together.
An audience of 600, men and women, packed the sanctuary at Temple Reyim, outside of Boston, for the program.
“These women were part of my narrative, part of my story that I tell,” Hurwitz told JTA. “To be standing in front of these real pioneers, it was an overwhelming sense of awe.”
The Dec. 6 program, titled “Raising Up the Light,” was sponsored by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. In a stirring tribute, 50 female rabbis from around the region who were in the audience were called up to the bimah to join the panelists at one point during the event.
“When I started, there was no one. I was alone,” Eisenberg Sasso said. “Now I wasn’t alone anymore.”
Priesand was the first woman to break the rabbinate barrier when she was ordained by the Reform movement in 1972. The Reconstructinist’s Eisenberg Sasso followed a year later. It was more than a decade before Eilberg’s ordination in 1985 by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Today there are 167 female Reconstructionist rabbis—approximately half of the rabbis ordained by the movement since 1974. The Conservative movement has 273 female rabbis worldwide among the total of 1,648. The Reform movement says it has 575 female rabbis in North America.
Hurwitz is the only Orthodox woman with the title of rabba; Weiss has said he will not bestow the title upon future female graduates of the institute he is launching to train women. The main Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Council of America, has ruled against the ordination of women as rabbis.
With the barriers in the non-Orthodox movements long broken, some female rabbis say it’s time to move beyond talk of how they were pioneers to discuss how they are influencing the general Jewish community.
“It’s time we got beyond how innovative it is to have women rabbis,” Rabbi Barbara Penzner, who was ordained in 1987 at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, told JTA. “These are women who’ve made significant contributions to Jewish life.”
When Priesand started out, she was the only female student at Hebrew Union College. Now she’s the rabbi emeritus at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J., where she served as the spiritual leader for 25 years. Priesand credits women not only with pushing their way into the rabbinate, but also with changing the way men practice the trade, making male rabbis more open and nurturing.
Eilberg’s rabbinic work has been focused largely in pastoral care through hospice, spiritual direction and conflict resolution. She also directs an interfaith dialogue program in Minneapolis.
While these are areas not exclusive to women, Eilberg said in an interview, the responsibilities require deep listening skills—skills with a strong resonance among women of her generation.
In interviews for her documentary with more than 25 female rabbis, Kern found a common thread in their pursuit of creating community through prayer while engaging in social action.
Anita Diamant, founder of a Boston-area mikvah called Mayyim Hayyim and author of the best-selling novel “The Red Tent,” said that many of the ceremonies observed at the mikvah by women and men owe a great deal to the insights and efforts of female rabbis who were ordained in the last 30 years.
Hurwitz, whose ordination was met with a sharp rebuke in some Orthodox circles, is the only one of the four first female rabbis who does not embrace full egalitarianism. Women cannot perform some ritual roles in Orthodoxy, she said, such as leading certain parts of the prayer services. But, she noted, women can serve in significant rituals and lifecycle events, such as officiating at weddings and funerals.
Hurwitz is now the dean of Yeshivat Maharat, which trains Orthodox women to become spiritual leaders, and a member of the rabbinic staff of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, where Weiss is the spiritual leader.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, does not believe that Hurwitz’s breach of the Orthodox line on female rabbis will lead to a shift within that community on the ordination of women. And outside the Orthodox community, he said, some congregations have concerns that the rabbinate is becoming feminized and, as a result, men are retreating from synagogue life.
Synagogues increasingly are being perceived as women’s prayer spaces and not male-friendly, Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman found in a 2008 report published by the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.
Sasso Eisenberg, who yearned for the company of women during her student days and early years as a rabbi, said a sense of sisterhood is very important to her. But she also feels strongly that women should not focus on setting a separate table.
“Ultimately what we want to do is bring women’s voices and stories to the traditional table of Jewish life,” Sasso Eisenberg said.