The transformative power of women rabbis

It is hard to think of anything that has altered Jewish life more radically than the inclusion of women in the rabbinate. 

Not even the advent of the internet could upset the time-worn traditions of Judaism more than the shape-shifting that occurred when a person who did not even count in a minyan could suddenly hold the most vaunted position of leadership in the Jewish community. 

“Not since Chasidism has there been such a huge shift in Judaism,” Ronda Spinak, artistic director of Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) recently observed during an interview. 

Spinak was discussing her latest project, the “Story Archive of Women Rabbis,” a new online video catalogue available at the Jewish Women’s Archive website, in which women rabbis tell their stories. “We contemplated doing a documentary,” Spinak said, “because the footage was so amazing.” 

The project, in fact, was first a staged play. As part of its mission to “tell untold stories of Jewish women,” JWT interviewed 18 Los Angeles women rabbis and then had actors recount their lives and struggles in the rabbis’ words. The interviews also produced 1,000 pages of transcripts covering issues ranging from personal theology to struggles with fertility. The play’s success affirmed for its creators a deeper public interest in their subject, so they decided to invest in a more elaborate undertaking.  

Seven years and $60,000 later, JWT has collected video testimonies from more than 175 women rabbis worldwide. Carefully curated into video clips, the result is both time capsule and oral history, recalling the groundbreaking work of pioneers and the creative innovations that followed. 

“People will look back at the time when women were ordained as rabbis as a time that totally transformed the way Judaism is practiced,” Lynne Himelstein, a co-director of the project, said. “The fact that we have the technology to record these amazing stories is a precious opportunity that we needed to take advantage of.”

By most accounts, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi was the German-born Regina Jonas in 1935. Legend has it she discovered her passion for the rabbinate at age 11. She pursued her education at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin and graduated as an “academic teacher of religion” after her Talmud professor refused to grant her ordination, even though she responded to her dilemma with the paper, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader of Liberal Judaism and one of Germany Jewry’s most influential figures, was not convinced, either. It was liberal-minded Rabbi Max Dienemann who finally stepped in and agreed to grant Jonas smicha, although Adolf Hitler’s rise to power curtailed her legacy.

Jonas ministered to Berlin’s Jewish community in defiance of Nazi authority until she was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942. There, she continued in her role, joining the renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” in counseling and teaching prisoners in the camp. In 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz and murdered, at age 42. 

No one remembered or told her story for nearly 50 years. 

It wasn’t until 1991 that Katharina von Kellenbach, a researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, found Jonas’s personal effects in an East Berlin archive and brought her legacy to life.

That legacy has now found immortality on the internet as part of the “Story Archive of Women Rabbis,” which seeks to ensure that other legacies such as Jonas’ will not again be forgotten. 

“One of the great gifts of feminism is discovering all these stories that have been hidden away for so long,” Sally Priesand, who in 1972 became the first woman rabbi in the United States, says in a video.

For the inaugural launch, the organizers profiled 25 rabbis, five of whom are based in Los Angeles — Rachel Adler, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR; Denise Eger, founder of Congregation Kol Ami; Laura Geller, rabbi emerita and former senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills; and Naomi Levy, founder of Nashuva. Each profile is artfully done, offering a brief biography and a series of thematically curated video clips that tend to have colorful titles. In one, “The Only Rabbi Doing This Work,” Eger, among the first openly lesbian rabbis, recalls the late 1980s when she was a minority rabbi ministering at the funerals of “masses of young Jewish men” who died of AIDS.

“I tried very hard to get to the personal,” Spinak said. “I would often ask: What was your personal crisis and how did Judaism help you get through it? Rabbis don’t talk about those things very often.”

For Adler, the Rabbi David Ellenson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at HUC-JIR, the pain of not being counted in a minyan was formative. In “What Am I, a Cockroach?” Adler comes off as both defiant and vulnerable: “There’s a real sense in which, if you aren’t counted in a minyan, you stop being thought of as a full person,” she says.

In “Tragedy Entered My Life,” Naomi Levy recounts the trauma of her father’s murder when she 15 and how it transformed her concept of God. “For me, at that time, God died too,” she says. “I just couldn’t understand how the God I loved, the God I prayed to, the God I thought I understood through my studies, would permit such a horrible thing to happen. … Did I stop believing in God? I didn’t. I just started hating God.” 

 Although common threads emerge — views on theology, creative new rituals, soulful prayer — the topics are mostly “all over the place,” Spinak admitted. “It goes from, ‘What’s it like marrying another rabbi?’ to ‘What’s a good death?’ ”

Overall, though, the archive offers a consistent portrait of the ways a once marginalized group fought for representation in their religion. 

“One woman talked about how congregants would say, ‘Rabbi your drash was amazing, but your shoes are fabulous,’ ” Spinak recalled. “And she said, ‘I don’t know which comment I liked better.’ ” 

This exemplified at least one dilemma many women rabbis share: “How can you be your feminine self and be perceived seriously?”

Another shared trait is a feeling of outsider status, which inspired the women to demand new forms of inclusive experience.

“For that first generation of women rabbis, it was all about bringing the matriarchs into prayer, changing God language to be non-gender specific, and creating new rituals and blessings that had not been part of the Jewish conversation. They also offered new interpretations of Torah,” Spinak said. “This is the legacy of the trailblazer generation.”

“A lot of what we’ve heard from these interviews is that women entering the rabbinate have brought a kind of ‘a softer side’ to how Jews look and perceive and interact with rabbis,” Himelstein added. “The image of the rabbi as a man with a long beard and white hair is [gone].”

“Instead of the father authority figure, people project the mother figure onto women rabbis,” Spinak said. “And they work within that and they know that.” 

The organizers hope that these interviews will be of interest to all people, Jewish and non-Jewish, young and old, and provide a portal into the Jewish experience, particularly for those who do not live near urban Jewish centers. 

“What I had hoped when we started is that people who maybe don’t have access to rabbis or are not affiliated could go online and hear what these women have to say about God and holy moments and maybe feel not as alone,” Spinak said.

So, did all this time spent studying women rabbis perhaps inspire a new career interest?

“It didn’t make me want to be one,” Spinak said, “but I really have a …  well, yeah, maybe a little bit.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Drama queens

One of the biggest and most obvious challenges in raising Jewish awareness and building Jewish connection is finding ways of getting your point across. Every week, across Los Angeles, there are hundreds of classes and sermons that aim specifically to do that: get a Jewish point across.

This could be a Shabbat sermon on the parasha of the week, or weekday classes on raising Jewish children, improving your marriage, refining your character, connecting to Jewish peoplehood and so on.

These classes convey plenty of valuable information, but rarely will they use the device of drama. And by drama, I don’t mean a speaker using a dramatic tone. I mean real drama, as in professional theater drama.

Like the drama I saw the other night at Rosanne Ziering’s home, performed by the Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT).

For almost two hours, professional actors performed mini-plays that dealt, in dramatic ways, with the kind of subjects I often hear about in sermons and classes. The only difference is that here, I was spellbound. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the performers or wait to hear the end of the stories.

There was a woman whose husband had personal habits that drove her nuts, but who discovers the depth of her love for him on a birthday card; a daughter who was disappointed that her mother didn’t share words of wisdom as she was dying—until the very end, when the mother spoke about her lifelong preoccupation with her weight.

There was a single mother whose teenage son ignored her—until she was diagnosed with breast cancer; a husband who admitted to his wife that, 50 years earlier, a woman they both knew almost seduced him, and that he still had the ticket where she wrote down her room number; a Jewish woman who shows up at a local fair at a Catholic high school and realizes how much she needs a community of her own.

There was a dancer-turned-successful lawyer who has an epiphany and ends up quitting her profession; a Jewish family traveling with a Palestinian family who were stopped at the Jordanian border when the Jewish women’s vitamins are thought to be drugs; a Christian woman in jail who discovers Judaism and leaves behind her mother’s oppression.

There was a woman reading a communist manifesto who learns from her father, who lived under Stalin in the 1940s, not to take words at face value but to question. She remembers this on his yahrzeit. 

There were stories like that all night long. The title of the show was “The Moment You Knew,” and it was billed as “Jewish women share stories of discovery and awakening.”

The theater group started pretty much the same way—with three Jewish women sharing stories around a kitchen table. It was in spring 2007 when theater lovers Ronda Spinak, Ellen Sandler and Deena Novak gave birth to JWT as a way to explore themes of Jewish identity for women in America.

The format is what they call “salon theater,” and it is usually performed in intimate home settings for audiences of about 50 to 100 people, depending on the size of the home. Over the years, they have attracted many volunteers and professionals from the theater and entertainment worlds as well as community funders, who have helped them grow their program.

They now have several shows a year based on different themes. Their previous show was titled “Saffron and Rosewater,” and it explored the search for Jewish identity among Persian women. They’ve also produced shows dealing with the theme of gratitude and one titled “Eden According to Eve,” which re-examined Bible stories from a woman’s perspective.

Last year, the group performed at the Museum of Tolerance a play titled “Stories From the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!” which used interviews with female rabbis in Los Angeles and was written by Spinak and Rabbi Lynne A. Kern.

Themes for upcoming shows will be “The Art of Forgiveness,” “Woman Plans, God Laughs” and “Oh Mother.”

A big key to their success is that they use theater professionals. Most of the plays are based on true stories, but these stories can’t simply be told: They must be produced, written and performed for dramatic effect.

That’s why the stories enter you.

The dialogue, the body movement, the timing, the delivery of the words, the pacing: Just like on a Broadway stage, everything is geared to getting you to listen to a story and absorb it.

By “adding” to reality, they deepen it. By “performing” the truth, they help you understand it.

Maybe it was the fact that they weren’t trying to teach me anything that made me feel I learned a few things that night, in addition to being entertained. Among other things, I learned that a “women’s” show must absolutely be seen by men, if for no other reason than that the sexes need to understand each other better.

At the end of the show, I went over to Spinak, who runs the group and is the artistic director, and made a suggestion: Create a show for next year on “Receiving the Torah” and perform it on Shavuot night in an Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. The only restriction, I said, would be no music.

She smiled, and without any hint of drama, said it would be a great idea.