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Orthodox woman, a first

In a groundbreaking appointment, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR,CA), has selected Tamar Frankiel as its new president, making her the first Orthodox woman to lead an American rabbinical school.

Frankiel, 66, is a professor of comparative religion and an expert on Jewish mysticism. 

The author of a widely used textbook on Christianity and several books on Judaism and Jewish women’s practice, Frankiel has taught since 2002 at AJR,CA, a transdenominational seminary at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA. She has served there as dean of students, dean of academic affairs and, most recently, as  provost.

Founded in 2000 by a small group of L.A. rabbis seeking to approach Jewish study from multiple perspectives, AJR,CA trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains. It originally was affiliated with the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, but one year after its founding, the West Coast school became an independent institution. 

According to Frankiel, AJR,CA now counts 65 students across three programs, some 40 of whom are rabbinical students. 

“We’re growing into a mature institution,” Frankiel said in a phone interview. “My job is to build on the foundation and bring more people into the orbit of AJR,CA.” 

Frankiel succeeds outgoing president Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, who also is Orthodox and who led AJR,CA beginning in 2008. Frankiel was appointed to the position Jan. 9 by the institution’s board of directors following a national search.

For an institution widely considered to be liberal, Frankiel said that “it’s perhaps unusual that two presidents in a row are Orthodox or observant.” She attributed that fact to the “pluralism of the school and the respect AJR,CA has for tradition.”

Graduates of AJR,CA’s five-year rabbinic training program should be fluent in both traditional and more liberal streams of Judaism, including Reform and Renewal, Frankiel said. 

“The depth of pluralism at the academy is quite amazing. Faculty from all different denominations teach there, and it’s the way I think Jewish life should grow and develop.”

As dean of academic affairs, Frankiel was instrumental in creating Claremont Lincoln University, a collaborative initiative between AJR,CA, the Claremont School of Theology and the Islamic Center of Southern California. AJR,CA received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to bring faculty from the three different faith institutions together for religious and textual study. The next step, Frankiel said, will be the production of an interfaith conference.

Raised in Ohio in a non-Jewish home, Frankiel converted to Judaism in 1979. She married Hershel Frankiel, a Polish Holocaust survivor, who was becoming more religiously observant at the time they met. Together they created a traditional Jewish home and raised five children in the Fairfax district.

Frankiel earned her doctorate in the history of religions from the University of Chicago and has taught at Claremont School of Theology, Stanford University and Princeton University. 

She wrote several books on religion in America, including “Gospel Hymns and Social Religion” and “California’s Spiritual Frontiers.” Her later works include “The Gift of Kabbalah” and “Entering the Temple of Dreams,” a Jewish guide to nighttime prayer and meditation for people of all faiths, which she co-authored with Judy Greenfeld. She also is the author of “The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism.”

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