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.

Spectator – My Husband, the Rabbi

The first time the word “rebbetzin” appeared in The New York Times was in 1931, in a review of a book about Yiddish theater. The term stood untranslated; the reviewer and his editors assumed that readers would understand the meaning.

The word has gone in and out of favor among those whom it describes, but the role itself has been an influential one, albeit not always recognized, over the last century in the American Jewish community. The first book to study the evolution of the role and the women who have filled it, “The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life,” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz (New York University Press), not only honors many unsung heroines but provides a significant contribution to American Jewish history.

Schwartz, a professor of history at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and dean of its undergraduate List College, is the daughter, niece, wife and soon-to-be the mother of rabbis. Sadly, since beginning this book, her husband, Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, died suddenly, so she now has an additional role — that of widow of a rabbi. Although “The Rabbi’s Wife” is not at all personal, Schwartz’s insider’s perspective informs her book. Because of her background, she was able to gain access to rabbis’ wives of different generations, who felt comfortable opening up their lives and — when they had kept them — their files.

Schwartz began pondering related issues while a graduate student at the Seminary in the 1970s, as she noticed the number of women in her classes hoping to get into rabbinical school should JTS begin ordaining women. “It got me thinking: Here are these bright, motivated religious women, who felt a calling to the rabbinate. My question was where were all these talented women in previous generations? My answer was that a lot of the talented women married rabbis.”

These days, professionals do much of the work that once was taken care of by the rebbetzin: synagogues now have executive directors, assistant rabbis, education directors and youth directors. In general the traditional rebbetzin role continues to thrive mostly in the Orthodox community, where women cannot be ordained. One pocket where the role continues most clearly is the Lubavitch community, where rabbis and their wives do outreach work as a team. But among the other denominations, women’s roles have changed radically.

“Women don’t have to marry rabbis to lead,” Schwartz says. “In balance, the Jewish community is richer.”


Two Women Rabbis Will Fill Pulpits

When Rabbi Johanna Hershenson set off from Orange County for Alaska’s sweeping vistas and majestic peaks, she was eager for a new congregational experience and professional challenges.

She discovered that most Alaskan Jews are exiles by choice who sought the wilderness of the nation’s largest state rather than institutional life.

Apart from the 175 member families she served at Anchorage’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Hershenson found little other Jewish life. As the only non-Orthodox rabbi in Alaska, she became a long-distance consultant to lay synagogue leaders in even more isolated areas, such as Homer and Fairbanks. A local Chabad rabbi and his wife were welcome colleagues, she said.

"It became clear there wasn’t a lot of room for me to grow professionally," said Hershenson, who left Alaska after three years and spent the last 12 months in Madison, Wis., for a self-imposed sabbatical. She considered pursuing a doctorate by researching the juncture of spirituality and psychology but ended up filling in for vacationing colleagues.

On July 1, Hershenson, 35, along with her family, will return to Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El, where she will serve as the assistant rabbi to Allen Krause for a second time. Then, like now, the senior rabbi is departing for a sabbatical, although this time Hershenson will not be on her own but helped by a temporary replacement rabbi.

"Jewish life is thriving there," Hershenson said, pointing out the congregation’s growth since 1998, the start of her first Beth El stint, from 425 families to 700. "It’s demography that changes; it’s not that the synagogue has magic pills."

Another female rabbi will also start work locally in July. Westminster’s Temple Beth David is Rabbi Nancy Myers’ first solo pulpit. She previously served for six years as associate rabbi of the 900-family Temple Chai of Long Grove, Ill. With a two-year contract at the smaller, 350-family Beth David congregation, Myers is the permanent replacement for Robert Klensin, who served a year as interim rabbi.

The opening arose because of the unexpected resignation of Beth David’s 13-year spiritual leader, Michael Mayershon, who stepped down in spring of 2002 (see story, page 9).

Myers, 34, impressed the Beth David search committee, which observed during a daylong trial as each finalist taught an adult education class, led a tot Shabbat service and offered pastoral counseling advice to a congregant struggling with teenagers, said Mark Sklan, the congregation’s past president.

"She was magnificent," he said.

Myers, along with her husband, Paul Prunty, and two toddlers, relocated last month to Cypress.

Help Wanted

If the New Economy has let you down and the Old Economy holds no charms, there may be a career opportunity for you in the Shul Economy.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the seminary that trains men and women for professions in Reform synagogues and other Jewish institutions, has been stepping up recruitment in response to a severe shortage of rabbis and other personnel for its congregations.

Scores of temples among the 906 affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) can’t fill their pulpits, with some waiting up to two years for new rabbis. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, UAHC president, said he expected the shortage in Reform rabbis, cantors, and religious school educators would continue for another five years and called the situation "the most serious issue facing Reform rabbis now."

The roaring economy of the 1990s turned some attention away from the clergy as a less attractive career choice, the Forward reported in February. Rabbi Charles Kroloff, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), Reform’s rabbinic organization, said many rabbis have begun to work part time, and many larger congregations have increased their rabbinic staffs. "That just gobbles up the rabbinic supply," Kroloff told the Forward.

HUC-JIR expects to ordain an average of 40 rabbis among its four campuses during each of the next five years, not nearly enough to fill the gap between demand and supply.

Compounding the problem, about a quarter of current Reform rabbinic students don’t want jobs with congregations, citing the long hours and lack of privacy in full-time pulpits; the rigors of congregational life can be especially unattractive to young couples with small children or who are contemplating starting a family.

The past few years have also seen growth in jobs for rabbis away from the pulpit, at colleges, JCCs, hospitals, and a wide range of Jewish organizations.

"I’m not sure what my plans are for after ordination," Mari Chernow, 29, a third-year rabbinical student, told The Journal. "The overcommitted nature of pulpit life is definitely a factor for me. I think you have to work very hard to maintain healthy boundaries…. The ‘senior rabbi at a large congregation’ job doesn’t seem to hold the appeal for as many people as it might have at one time."

The problem becomes severe in more remote Western towns. In Sun Valley, Idaho, the 50-family Jewish community has been searching for a rabbi for months. According to Wood River Jewish Community president Adam Kosler, the congregation has had only a handful of applications and is faced with a limited pool from which to choose.

"In Los Angeles, things are under control, but further south, things are a little dicey," said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of UAHC’s Pacific Southwest Council.

"I’m very concerned about it," he added. "There’s a trickle-down effect, where people who would normally take part-time positions are in full-time positions." The part-time positions then go begging, he said,without enough rabbinic students in the pipeline to fill them.

The Conservative movement is suffering a shortage of congregational rabbis as well, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ), but, he told the Journal, both UJ and the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary have seen recent increases in enrollment.

During the past year, HUC-JIR has begun to recruit more aggressively, training rabbis to identify and approach prospective clergy in their communities, becoming more visible on college campuses, and getting the word out to its laity that new students are needed and welcomed.

"We haven’t talked about it enough, the Jewish people as a career path," Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost and acting president of HUC-JIR, said in 1999. "People who are currently professionals in the field don’t talk enough about themselves, about careers of service. Rabbis, cantors, educators in the field really are our best recruitment vehicles."

The Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR has expanded the role of admissions dean to "director of recruitment and admissions"; Dr. Lewis Barth, president of the Los Angeles school, said his campus "has devoted intensive efforts to this, to find out where we have to go to attract outstanding Jewish people."

The local and national efforts may already be paying off, with the class of 2006 — this year’s incoming group of rabbinical students — projected at 50 students, more than half again the size of last fall’s incoming class.

Both HUC-JIR and the Conservative seminaries have seen growth in students who are pursuing the rabbinate and cantorate as second careers and have begun to view their "lay elite" as a possible source of clergy. Barth, for example, spoke at last summer’s UAHC Kallah in Santa Cruz, a retreat that attracts Reform Jews interested in intensive text study and daily worship, and invited participants to explore careers in Jewish professional life.

Seeing a period of growth for his school, Barth is upbeat, calling the current shortage of congregational personnel a sign of "the enormous success of the Reform movement and other [Jewish] agencies that need professional and spiritual leadership. This is really positive stuff that’s happening."

Henkin, expressing the view from the congrega-tions, is less sanguine about the shortage, saying it will take the seminaries several years to boost their output of clergy. "It’s quite systemic," he said of the crisis, "and it’s going to take us a while to work through it."

Orthodox Women Rabbis

The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world

The furor raised in Orthodox circles by 27-year-old Haviva Ner-David, who is studying in Israel to become the world’s first Orthodox woman rabbi, should have been no surprise to anyone. Old habits die slowly, some say never. Although halacha (Jewish law) does not technically forbid a woman from becoming a rabbi, the Orthodox claim that tradition prevents a woman from becoming one. Furthermore, because a few minor limitations on a woman’s public role in a synagogue would prevent her from fulfilling some of the responsibilities of a pulpit rabbi, the Orthodox claim she should not seek ordination at all. This argument, of course, is fallacious. Aside from easy solutions to such minor obstacles, most male rabbis also do not perform the role of pulpit rabbis; nevertheless, they are ordained.

Still others argue that female ordination distracts and detracts from the most important issue in the Orthodox community, that is the issue of the agunah (the married woman who is unable to obtain her Jewish divorce from a recalcitrant husband). To the contrary. It is precisely the agunah issue that should inspire Orthodox women to become rabbis and have the right to interpret halacha.

Historically, the rabbis have been the sole interpreters of Jewish law, the judges of conflicts affecting Orthodox Jews and the deciders of Jewish legal issues. The Orthodox rabbinate has been comprised only of men. Ergo, Jewish justice and legislation has been the exclusive domain of men. And they have miserably failed in that job, especially in the areas of Jewish law that adversely impacts women, such as the get (divorce) and chalitzah (the body of law that prevents a childless widow from remarrying unless her deceased husband’s brother releases her to do so).

The myriad examples of rabbinical impotence and incompetence in this area of Jewish law are staggering. Witness the male rabbis who failed to obtain a get for a woman even after they turned over the extorted funds to the husband. Read accounts of the severely beaten wife being urged by the rabbis to obtain her get by giving her abusive husband the money to appeal his battery conviction. Listen to the tale of the widow whose child died before her husband did in an auto accident, and was thus forced to beg and barter her freedom from her brother-in-law because, as a childless widow she was bound to her husband’s brother by Jewish law. Notice the Orthodox rabbis squirm to admit that the effects of Jewish divorce laws wreak abominable horrors on Orthodox women and children, but that they “cannot change halacha.” It is time to respond with the paraphrase of a popular quote: “There is nothing wrong with Jewish law, only with the people who interpret it.”

It is no secret that men are the sole constituents of both the Orthodox pulpit rabbi and of the rabbis who head yeshivot. Women do not count in the minyan, they are not called up to the Torah, and their role in the synagogue is strictly silent and invisible behind the mechitzah. Furthermore, major yeshivot have been traditionally seats of Talmudic learning, reserved exclusively for men; thus, rosh yeshiva rabbis need not answer to any woman. It is no accident, therefore, that few Orthodox rabbis would deign to offend their male constituents, dare incur the wrath and disdain of their colleagues, or risk being shunned by the Orthodox rabbinate by decrying that any halachic interpretation of Jewish divorce law that allows Jewish men such unfettered power to abuse women and children is a chillul Hashem, and should not be tolerated.

When Orthodox women denounced the rabbis’ ineptitude with claims that, ‘where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way,’ these claims were dismissed by the rabbis as ravings of ignorant women. At the same time, women were deliberately prevented from learning Talmudic law because the rabbis claimed that the sages forbade the study of Gemara by women.

How right they were. It is precisely this forbidden education that has opened women’s eyes to the need to help themselves. In a Canadian Orthodox community, women organized a mikvah strike when they became frustrated with the rabbis’ inability to help a woman obtain her get. Not surprisingly, the mikvahs did not remain closed for long before the men assured that the agunah obtained her get. But Orthodox women are beginning to recognize that such “Lysistrata” strategy is not only demeaning to both women and men, it has very little impact on the agunah problem at large. Orthodox women are now realizing that using their intellect and education will be far more effective in bringing global solutions to oppressed women and children in the Jewish world.

While the title “rabbi” does not automatically confer wisdom or godliness in the eyes of the public, it does validate the opinions of its possessor. It is an unfortunate truism that in the Orthodox community, when a rabbi makes a halachic decision that may be contradicted by an eminent scholar who does not hold the title “rabbi,” the populace will automatically accept the rabbi’s interpretation, even if the rabbi’s opinion is indefensible. (This phenomenon is not unique to the Orthodox community. A university professor with a Ph.D. may be spouting nonsense during his lecture, but if his theory is rebutted by a scholar who lacks the Ph.D. initials after his name, it is unlikely that many will disregard the professor’s assessment.) Thus, when Rabbi Avi Weiss proposed, at the International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, that in lieu of ordaining women as rabbis, these Talmudically educated women should be given the title morot (teachers), he was oblivious to the psychological impact that the title “rabbi” confers upon its recipient. Can anyone deny that in a halachic debate between rabbis and morot, the rabbis will always prevail, regardless of the validity or their opinion?

Orthodox women do not seek to become rabbis simply to “be like men.” To the contrary, Orthodox women have been traditionally trained to take private, rather than public, roles in the Orthodox community. However, when male rabbis consistently shirk their duty to do justice for all Jews, there is little alternative to allowing women to test their remedies. The time has come to educate women and give them the titular and legal authority to right that which has gone so terribly wrong in the Orthodox world.

Is this phenomenon likely to occur within the next few years? Are we destined to see mass ordination of women by 1998 or 1999? Not likely. But those who predict the permanent demise of such a movement will have a better shot at stuffing an escaped genie back into its bottle.

Alexandra Leichter is a family-law attorney in Beverly Hills, and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood Village Synagogue.

All rights reserved by author, 1997.