Elevate more female rabbis into leadership roles

On a recent trip to Berlin with a dozen other Conservative rabbis, we made certain to stop at the apartment building that Regina Jonas once called home. I had never heard of Jonas, but to the four female rabbis in our group she was a hero.

In 1935, she became the first woman in the world to be ordained as a rabbi. My colleague, Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, hosted our group at her beautiful Berlin synagogue during our visit and doubled as a knowledgeable tour guide. We also had the opportunity to meet with rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College, where in 2010 Rabbi Alina Treiger became the first woman to be ordained in Germany since Jonas.

Today there are hundreds of inspiring, smart and passionate female rabbis who have followed in the steps of Regina Jonas.

As another “rabba” will soon be ordained, American Jews are just getting used to the idea of female rabbis in the Modern Orthodox world. However, in the more progressive streams of Judaism, female rabbis have been on the scene for decades and are now part of the fabric of everyday Jewish life. In fact, one funny anecdote demonstrates that for some of the youngest members of the Jewish community, female rabbis are the only form of rabbi that exists.

A female colleague tells the story of introducing her 5-year-old son to a male rabbi. He reacted in shock and said, “But Mommy, I thought only ladies can be rabbis.” Out of the mouths of babes.

In Newsweek magazine’s recent ranking of the top U.S. rabbis for this year listed many more women at the top. Among these superstar rabbis were women who are leading institutions and large congregations, as well as highly sought-after authors and entrepreneurs who have launched their own communities.

Like other professions in which women were once not welcome to join, the rabbinate has been forced to learn how to accept female rabbis into the ranks. Certainly this acceptance is most challenging for the oldest generation of rabbis who came of age in the old boys network—a rabbinate sans women. Rabbis now in their middle age were the first to welcome women into the profession, but also have memories of the controversy that took shape around the seminary doors opening. But for younger rabbis—I include myself in this cohort even though my doctor tells me I’m aging a bit each day—there have always been female rabbis, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

I recall the first time I jumped into a New York City cab and noticed that my driver was a woman. I did a double take, but then things progressed as usual. She got me to my destination, I paid the fare and her tip, said thanks, and was on my way.

Not so with female rabbis, however. There are noticeable differences between the sexes, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist. Having women as rabbis has added immensely to all aspects of Judaism, and female rabbis have helped shape the conversation.

Female rabbis have added beautiful new rituals to our tradition. They have introduced spiritual rituals that most men wouldn’t have dreamed up, like prayers for fertility, teachings at the mikvah and meaningful customs following a miscarriage.

Female rabbis have brought naming ceremonies for our daughters to the meaningful level of the brit. They can relate to the teenage bat mitzvah girl in ways that male rabbis never could or would never even try. Their commentary on the Torah and Talmud is fresh, and they can provide voices to the hidden personas of the many female characters of our rich text that have been missing for generations.

When I was in rabbinical school, I gained new perspectives from my female peers who at the time numbered just one-third of the student body. I cherish the wonderful professional and personal relationships I have with our female rabbis in town. They offer so much to our community, and I feel sorry for the previous generations who missed out on the female rabbinic voices.

Many women might yearn for the day when we no longer use the term “female rabbi” or when the Forward doesn’t publish a list of the top 50 female rabbis. But we should embrace the changing face of the American rabbinate. Men and women are different creatures, and so, too, it is in the rabbinate. It will only be to Orthodoxy’s benefit to welcome more women into rabbinic leadership roles. Regina Jonas would be proud.

(Rabbi Jason Miller is the director of Kosher Michigan, a kosher certification agency, and president of Access Computer Technology, a tech support and social media marketing company.)

First black female rabbi to leave congregation

The first African-American female rabbi will leave her congregation this summer.

Rabbi Alysa Stanton’s contract with Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, S.C., was not renewed, the Forward reported Thursday.

“We felt Rabbi Stanton has brought a lot of gifts to the congregation, but we felt she wasn’t a good fit for the direction we’re going,” board president Samantha Pilot told the Forward. “I can tell you with certainty that race—I never heard that come up once during her tenure or now. It’s a non-issue.”

Bayt Shalom is a small Conservative congregation that also is affiliated with the Reform movement.

Stanton said she will serve out her contract, which expires at the end of July.

Stanton, 47, a convert and mother to an adopted teenage daughter, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in June 2009, and took up her full-time pulpit shortly thereafter.

The former Pentecostal Christian converted 20 years ago while in college. She is a trained psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and grief.

Student on track to become first black female rabbi

Alysa Stanton-Ogulnick isn’t particularly interested in being a standard-bearer.

She’s proud to be black, proud to be a woman and proud to be a 45-year-old single mother who raised her adopted child on her own.

And when she says that next year, following her ordination as a Reform rabbi, she will become the first black female rabbi, the huge grin on her face lets folks know she feels pretty good about that, too.

But Stanton-Ogulnick, who is studying at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), didn’t set out to be the first. It just kind of happened, like so much else in her life.

“If I were the 50,000th, I’d still be doing what I do, trying to live my life with kavanah and kedusha,” she said, using the Hebrew words for intentionality and holiness. “Me being first was just the luck of the draw.”

Stanton-Ogulnick — she’s still getting used to the second part of her hyphenated last name, the product of a recent marriage — was recently in San Francisco for a conference of ethnically and racially diverse Jews and Jewish communities sponsored by Be’chol Lashon, an organization that supports their efforts to enter the Jewish mainstream.

That’s something the future rabbi knows a great deal about — as a woman, as a convert and as a Jew of color. She’s had to fight for success and acceptance in a world that wasn’t always welcoming.

“At this conference there are people from all over looking for their identity,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “Maybe I can help them on the path by breaking down barriers.”

That’s among her goals as a rabbi, she says: breaking barriers, building bridges and giving hope.

Like many rabbinic students now, Stanton-Ogulnick is on her second career. She came to the rabbinate as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in grief and loss issues.

Stanton-Ogulnick has worked with trauma victims in Colorado for the past 16 years, at the same time becoming more active in Denver’s Temple Emanuel. She has served the synagogue as a para-chaplain, religious-school teacher and cantorial soloist.

Raised by Pentacostal parents, Stanton-Ogulnick spent her childhood and young adulthood as a spiritual seeker, making the rounds of various Christian denominations before finding her home in Judaism. She converted more than 20 years ago.

“People look at me and ask if I was born Jewish,” she said. “I say yes, but not to a Jewish womb. I believe I was at Sinai. It’s not as if one day I scratched my head and said, hmm, now how can I make my life more difficult? I know — I’ll become Jewish!”

Stanton-Ogulnick made her choice to join the Jewish community as an adult, well aware of the difficulties that might arise. Her daughter Shana, now 13, didn’t get to choose; she was dipped in the mikvah (ritual bath) as an infant.

The year they spent in Jerusalem, Stanton-Ogulnick’s first year as an HUC-JIR student, was the most difficult. Shana, then 7, faced daily prejudice at school.

“She was beat up, and once was literally kicked off the bus,” her mother said with quiet anger. “We’d been in Israel three months and her only friend was a cat.”

One day, Shana came home from camp beaming because one of the other children held her hand.

“‘Nobody ever holds my hand, Mommy,’ she said to me,” Stanton-Ogulnick recounted. “I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because I’m shochor,'” or black.

“Ani lo tov, ani lo yafah,” the little girl told her mother, using the Hebrew for “I’m no good, I’m not pretty.”

Even telling the story now, six years later, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head.

“Sometimes I’ve been in tears with what I have put this child through,” she says.

Stanton-Ogulnick relates some of the difficulties of her life’s journey in a monologue she created last fall called “Layers.”

First performed at a conference of Reform religious-school educators in October, the piece opens with her standing on stage with her head in a noose, a shocking evocation of slavery. The monologue deals with her journey to Judaism and other major changes in her life, including a recent weight loss of 122 pounds.

Pulling out an old picture of herself at her former weight, Stanton-Ogulnick shakes her head again. Is she really no longer that person? Is she really about to become a rabbi?

It’s all so remarkable, she muses.

At the end of one performance, she says, a woman came up to her in tears, saying, “You told my story, thank you.”

“It’s those moments,” Stanton-Ogulnick said. “Even though the journey is long and the path difficult, if I can provide someone with a little hope and a sense of purpose, it’s worthwhile.”

It’s experiencing those moments that she is most looking forward to as a rabbi, whether she ends up in a pulpit, working as a chaplain or in some other position.

“That moment, that ‘a-ha, I’m not alone’ that comes when I’m talking with a congregant or an individual struggling with something and I’m helping them find a solution,” she said, “that a-ha moment is what it’s about for me.”

Couscous for the Soul

Pauline Bebe, France’s first and only female rabbi, was in town last week, soaking up not only the winter California warmth but our spiritual rays, too. Dark-haired and soft-spoken, Bebe, 36, is a leader in a growing Jewish liberal revival that is now spreading rapidly through Napoleon’s homeland. But in a nation that is still startled by a newspaper headline reading “Moi, femme juive et rabbin” (I, woman, Jewish and rabbi), she’s got her work cut out for her.

For many of us, French Jewry is little more than an off-road adventure during a trip to Paris. Even assimilated Jews get a kick seeking out a pastrami sandwich in the Marais or attending High Holy Days services in the ancient Orthodox synagogue where, amid intermittent anti-Semitic attacks, gendarmes guard the gates. Most of the time, France represents hostility to Jews, siding with Arabs against Israel and hiding terrorists.

But France contains the world’s fourth-largest Jewish community, and 200 years ago, its Jews were the first to balance Jewish identity against citizenship in a modern state. France was, of course, the home of the great Talmudist Rashi and the birthplace of modern sociology (once derided as a “Jewish science”).

Today’s French Jewish society is culturally diverse, equally Ashkenazi and Sephardi. When I asked the Sorbonne-educated Bebe how a Jewish mother makes chicken soup, she replied, “Couscous.”

As French Jews go, so, in a way, do we all. And today they need our help.

With a Jewish population nearing 700,000, only 5 percent of French Jews are affiliated with any community organization or practice. American Jews talk about the loss of the current generation to intermarriage or disaffection, but our community participation is at the 50 percent level. For Bebe and her American-born husband, Rabbi Tom Cohen, for the French to reach 50 percent participation in two decades will be miraculeux.

But before the miracle can occur, the weight of modern history must be lifted. Of course I mean the Shoah.
“I have that history in my own family,” began Bebe, as she kept one eye on her 5-month-old son Elon, and an ear on two other youngsters in the next room.

“My grandfather, Paul Nathan, was in engineering school when he was told to register with the police. He was proud of his country, his family had died for his country. He never thought that by signing a piece of paper, he would endanger his life.”

The infamous history of France under Vichy echoes throughout Bebe’s congregation. France didn’t wait for Hitler to begin its own assault on its Jews. More than 80,000 Jews were deported from France to Germany and Poland, where many were killed.

And yet, while the police cooperated with the Gestapo, many individuals, including police, took enormous risks on their behalf.

“My grandfather was out riding his bike when a policeman warned him that he better leave,” she said. Bebe’s mother and father, like thousands of French Jews, were hidden by Catholic families in the south of France throughout the war.

“I asked my in-laws why they stayed,” Tom Cohen told me. “But it was far more complex than American Jews believe.”

After the war, Jewish life ended. There were few Jewish schools. Today’s synagogue-goer is making up for lost time, feeding a hunger suppressed for two decades. Though Bebe’s role as first female rabbi initially caused a stir, she is the rare member of Generation J, a Jew with knowledge. There are 200 families in her synagogue, 80 students in her religious school.

“The true tradition of Judaism is being open … and we are building its home in Paris,” reads the brochure for Bebe’s dream, the Jewish Community Center in Paris. Combining a synagogue, school, library and cybercafe, the center will be “a home filled with spirituality, where every step of the cycle of life can be celebrated with emotion, a home where it’s good to enter and linger a while.”

This is where we can help. With the help of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, a building campaign has begun for the first French JCC. You can become an associate member of this new institution.
But that’s not all. Bebe says that many French Jews are still uncertain about taking the first step. A generation that grew up in Jewish ignorance needs mentoring and friendship.

“When you’re in Paris, don’t only visit the Orthodox shul, visit us,” she says (e-mail Paris@judaisme-liberal.com). “I can tell them that Reform Judaism is the largest movement, but that’s only a rabbi talking. Our congregants need to see you, to know that liberal Judaism is observed all over the world.”
When in Paris, get some Couscous for your soul.