September 22, 2019

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.