For International Women’s Day, The Times of Israel sent an email “message in a bottle” into the seas of the world wide web with three basic questions. Addressed to individual female Jewish religious leaders, relayed via friends (and friends of friends) and to religious organizations, the women were given a short deadline in an intense week for Jewish clergy — including Purim celebrations — and the email was sent with small hope and a silent prayer.
The responses we received, from leaders across the Jewish Diaspora, were astounding, varied and thoughtful.
Their answers are a window into the still tough world of female rabbis and religious leaders who still must fight for equal recognition, equal opportunity, and equal pay. After hearing from many of the pioneering generation, the status of women today seems infinitely better — until you hear about the Conservative rabbi who had her bottom patted during an interview.
Many women rabbis talk of not being able to find work as pulpit congregational leaders. Often they turn to education or pastoral care/chaplaincy as professions, and for some, vocations.
But some of the women clearly struggle with the word “rabbi.” One respondent was ordained, but has since repudiated the title. Another, an Orthodox educator, is studying for rabbinical exams as a natural evolution in broadening her Jewish learning. Other Orthodox women bypass the word entirely and walk the rabbinic walk without officially taking the title. In many cases these women, formally trained and certified, use new terms for their similar communal functions — “halachic adviser” or “maharat.”
Below are excerpts of answers from women, arranged in alphabetical order, to the following three questions:
1) Are you a pioneer in your field by way of being a woman?
2) When you began, did you feel a need to prove yourself because of your gender? When and where? And if so, has this abated?
3) Have you seen any progress, or regression, for female Jewish leadership since you have worked in the field?
Rabbi Miriam C. Berkowitz, 44, executive director Kashouvot, chaplain at the St Louis French Hospital
Berkowitz is among those spearheading the movement for paid chaplaincy in Israel. Born in Montreal, the rabbi says in Israel she must do a lot of educating, explaining, countering misconceptions, and advocacy for her field.
Being a woman rabbi, a Conservative rabbi in Israel, a woman rabbi in Israel and a Conservative woman rabbi in Israel all make me a pioneer! And now I am one of the few people developing a new field, hospital chaplaincy, which is pioneering in its own right. Most of those working in the field are women, and I feel it is important not to have it just as volunteer work but as a paid and respected and recognized profession.
I am also one of the minority in the field who does see it linked to religious leadership and a natural subcategory of the rabbinate, with the authority and connection to tradition that the position involves in the US and elsewhere. As a pioneer I need patience, courage, and vision to do what Henrietta Szold said: “Dream big dreams and take the practical steps to make them reality.”
I chose to be a rabbi because I thought it the most appropriate match for my skills and interests. I grew up (in Montreal, in a not very religious environment) thinking it was obvious women could do any job, and I had nothing to prove and no feminist agenda.
However later when I saw the differences in pay and status and the small number of women at top jobs I did begin to see myself as part of a movement and committed to mentoring women rabbinical students and working at the micro and macro levels for structural change.
Malke Bina, 64, chancellor and founder, Matan, in Jerusalem
An immigrant from the the United States to Israel in 1972, Bina founded Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem in 1988. Bina is the daughter of and married to a rabbi, and though she is a pioneer in forming religious Jewish female leaders, her graduates do not take on the title rabbi but rather “halachic adviser.”
Forty years ago women’s voices were rarely heard in the world of advanced Torah study and most particularly in the world of Talmud study. Women were excluded from leadership within the Jewish community and had no part in making decisions that influenced their lives. The Beit Midrash was a place for men to gather and learn.
I vividly remember, as a youngster, being sent by my mother with a message to deliver to my father, who was sitting in the Beit Midrash. I was hesitant to approach because in those days the Beit Midrash was unfamiliar territory for women. As I entered this study hall, I was excited by the sights and sounds of chevrutot (pairs) studying and analyzing the finer points of Talmud.
From that very young age I wanted to steep myself in Torah learning and as my knowledge deepened it was a natural progression to move onto the study of Talmud and halacha – Jewish Law. Although it was unusual, in fact almost unheard of, for women, learning Talmud in-depth became my passion.
‘I was determined that gender should never be a hindrance to Torah/Talmud study for women’
I never felt a need to prove myself because of my gender but I was determined that gender should never be a hindrance to Torah/Talmud study for women. It was my personal desire to master the skills of Talmud so that I could have access to that world. When I was young it was a male domain but I wasn’t prepared to let that stop me. Luckily I had wonderful teachers and the support of family to spur me on and back me in my choices. As my knowledge of Talmud became deeper and broader, I dreamt of being able to share that knowledge with other women.
I believe from the depths of my soul that Torah study belongs to everyone, and that everyone includes women from all backgrounds and with all levels of knowledge. I would say that my desire to bring Torah to women has certainly not abated; if anything it has grown. I continue to look for innovative and meaningful ways to provide learning opportunities for Jewish women, broadening horizons and enriching their lives.
Rabbi Debra Cantor, 58, pulpit in Bloomfield, Connecticut
Cantor was a member of the first class at the Jewish Theological Seminary (of the Conservative/Masorti movement) to include women when she began her rabbinical training in the fall of 1984. After her ordination in 1988, she was the first female graduate of JTS Rabbinical School hired for a congregational position in the New York Tri-State area.
I had already felt the need to prove myself as a woman as a graduate student at the Seminary, where I was often the only female student (or one of a handful) in most of my classes, which were mainly in the Rabbinical School. A group of us got together and I drafted a letter to the Seminary faculty in advance of their vote on the question of women’s ordination. Eight of us signed the letter, and when I read it today, it seems so tame; we wanted to learn and serve the Jewish people. But back then, it was a big deal. That vote was tabled, but ultimately, JTS voted to accept women to the Rabbinical School.
The women were under a lot of scrutiny when we first entered the JTS Rabbinical School. There were loads of reporters there when we signed up for classes and they peppered us with questions, like: “How will JTS be different because you are now here?” and “How will women change the rabbinate?” Of course, there were already women who were rabbis in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. But the timing of the reporters’ questions seemed absurd; we hadn’t yet attended a single class!
‘Once we were admitted, the bigger challenge came when we looked for positions’
Once we were admitted, the bigger challenge came when we looked for positions. To say there was not a level playing field was an understatement! But I went through many, many interviews before I was hired.
Rabbinical search committees are notoriously skittish about making any decisions which might be viewed as controversial in any way. And my hiring was certainly that. They spoke to 12 references for me and then called to find out if I could give them the names of more people they could call!
At the beginning and for the first few years, people considered the idea of a female rabbi to be either threatening or a novelty. But once they saw us in action, folks quickly realized we were just… rabbis. That’s what we desperately wanted: to be accepted as authentic and “normal.”
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, faculty at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary
Sasso was the first woman ordained from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974, the second woman to be ordained as a rabbi in the United States, and the third in the world. From 1977 she served with her husband, Rabbi Dennis Sasso, as a congregational rabbi for Indianapolis’ Congregation Beth-el Zedeck. In 2013 she became director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University and Christian Theological Seminary.
I knew that if I failed it would be more than a personal failure, it would have implications for all women who wanted to enter the rabbinate.
It has been 40 years since ordination and the issue of gender discrimination that I experienced do not exist. There are hundreds of women rabbis around the world. It is no longer unusual for women to study in seminary or to lead congregations.
Still women do not receive the same pay as men, have fewer opportunities to achieve powerful positions in congregations and in the organizational world. Issues of childcare, maternity leave are not yet resolved.
There has been extraordinary progress. At least half the people studying for the rabbinate are women, and over 50% of those studying to be cantors. There are women rabbis of large congregations and heads of Jewish organizations. In 40 years we have seen a revolution impacting all of Jewish life from theology, liturgy, life cycle and festival ritual, Torah interpretation and leadership styles. The stories, voices and names of women in Jewish history are being heard.
Rachel Friedman, 53, dean and founder, Lamdeinu in New Jersey
Friedman, a long-time Jewish educator at institutions such as New York’s Drisha, recently founded Lamdeinu, a new center for religious learning, in 2014 in Teaneck, New Jersey. The daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, she has been welcomed to teach all denominations, including ultra-Orthodoxy.
I never set out to be a leader – just a teacher of Torah. For me, blending academic skills and Torah scholarship and using this synthesis to inspire and elevate diverse audiences became my contribution. The truth is, I have a deep and insatiable passion for the Bible.
My father z”l was always supportive of my Torah study – however, he was ill and at the end of his life when I transitioned from law to Torah as a full-time career. My mother z”l, who was a traditional rebbetzin, was very proud, inspired and enthused by my teaching and leadership roles. On a number of occasions, we “schlepped” her in a wheelchair to learning events and she was thrilled.
I have felt welcome to teach Torah in ultra-Orthodox, centrist/modern Orthodox as well as the broader Jewish community. Perhaps that is because my raison d’etre is about the vital importance of learning Torah and sacred Jewish texts to everyone in the Jewish community. I believe that if every person – woman or man – learned Torah in a serious and meaningful way on a consistent and regular basis, our communities’ religious life would be deeply enriched. That is a unifying mission across community lines.
As the mantra of Lamdeinu goes: Study in depth. Be inspired.
Avitall Gerstetter, 39, cantor in Berlin’s Jewish community
Gerstetter is the sole female cantor employed by the German Jewish community and is based at the synagogue Oranienburger Straße in Berlin. She was trained in the United States and performs internationally.
As part of her work with youth she is developing an interfaith Holocaust remembrance project that includes, among other things, a comics component.
Although the Jewish community asked me to go to the US to study to become a cantor, I still felt I had to prove myself because of my gender.
Until today, there are occasions where I am never invited to sing.
For the first time this year, after having worked as a cantor for 15 years, I was invited to sing with my colleagues for a Kristallnacht memorial ceremony at the Jewish Community Center. My singing was followed by a speech from an Orthodox rabbi.
I must admit, there has been little progress in my community.
Rabbi Miri Gold, 65, Kehilat Birkat Shalom in Kibbutz Gezer
In 1999, Gold was the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in Israel. She serves as the rabbi of Kehilat Birkat Shalom in Kibbutz Gezer and made headlines as the poster child in a 2005 lawsuit brought by the Reform movement’s activist wing to be paid for her services by the State of Israel. In 2012 Gold and her fellow Reform and Conservative rabbis who serve as heads of regional communities won their case. And in January 2014, they finally received payment.
Israelis are not accustomed to women rabbis, especially at the time I was ordained. Today there are more Israelis who are comfortable with the idea that women can have equal rights as Jewish religious leaders. The situation is not ideal, but has improved since my ordination in 1999.
Meesh Hammer-Kossoy, 46, Talmud teacher, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
Hammer-Kossoy is a longtime Talmud teacher at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. In what she calls a “natural evolution,” she says she has begun studying halacha for a private “Orthodox” ordination.
When I started studying Talmud seriously in 1991 there were almost no female teachers in the field. I was a “Bruria scholar” the first year in which Midreshet Lindenbaum opened advanced studies for women, and one of the first women to earn a PhD in Talmud. Now at my daughter’s high school (Pelech), all the Talmud teachers are female, and they have a female Rav Bet Sefer (school rabbi).
Recently, I have started studying halacha for private ordination. My studies are not intended to be revolutionary or even a major ideological step. Rather, they are a natural evolution for me personally and the progressive Orthodox world as a whole. All of my male colleagues are rabbis, and my students and community have long looked to me to for halachic guidance. Now I am just preparing for and passing tests to back that up.
‘All of my male colleagues are rabbis, and my students and community have long looked to me to for halachic guidance’
I am happy to say that I felt that the Jewish world was really cheering me on as a young Talmud scholar. They loved to see a young mother filling her traditional role and also blazing new trails.
As a female religious leader, I felt challenged in the same ways that every female professional does. My husband has supported me and partnered in raising our children in ways that were unimaginable in my parents’ generation. He cooks some impressive food and gracefully plays the part of “rebbetzin” with my students, but an egalitarian marriage is not as simple as we envisioned it in our youth.
Rabbi Shira Israel, Jewish educator in Modiin, Israel
Israel was born and raised in Iran and moved as an adult to the United States where she began rabbinical studies in California at the University of Judaism. She moved to Israel in 1997 and was ordained at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem in 2000. She is the former head of a congregation in Safed, Israel, but now teaches meditation and Jewish spirituality to women.
In the past 10 years I have become more diplomatic about sharing my profession with strangers. I think twice before I reveal to a stranger what I do and the fact that I am a rabbi.
There are two types of women in Israel who do not share openly what they do for a living. The first type you know, and the second category are some women rabbis — especially if the woman rabbi is very sensitive and feels pain in her body when she is attacked verbally or looked at aggressively.
I remember once in a train station I developed a conversation with a young woman soldier. After she heard that I was a rabbi, she turned to me again and asked, astonished, “Are you Jewish?”
This is our challenge in Israel: To educate the Israeli communities that outside of Israel the majority of Jews — and they are truly Jews — are not Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox and they accept women rabbis with the full responsibility and authority of male rabbis.
We have managed to go to the moon, but have not managed to bring to Israel the understanding that a woman rabbi is fully capable and knowledgeable to lead a congregation, educate the community, and officiate in life cycle celebrations, if not better, at least like the men.
Melanie Landau, 41, student at Yeshivat Maharat, spiritual guide
Although Landau is set to graduate from Yeshivat Maharat this year, for many years she has been facilitating life cycle events, including presiding over halachic wedding ceremonies. She wrote her PhD on Jewish marriage and alternatives to kiddushin within the tradition and says, “Many women don’t realize what kiddushin is and would not agree to it if they realized that their husband could possibly refuse them a divorce and leave them without the means to get remarried Jewishly.”
Underlying my performance of traditional rituals is my sense of the deep importance of women’s leadership and cultivation of wisdom in communities — for communities as a whole, and for all women and girls in particular.
The first time I was the sole officiant I noticed inside myself a backlash: lots of self-criticism, some shame and much judgmentalism. I am not sure if I was soaking up judgment that was directed to me (I can do that because I am very sensitive to energies around me) or conversely, or maybe in addition, whether I was experiencing a sense of internalized misogyny.
I come from working in the field of conflict transformation. In this paradigm, challenges, conflicts, problems are also simultaneously opportunities for healing, growth and transformation. Not something to be avoided but something to be approached and entered with a spirit of possibility, flexibility and creativity. I see myself being of service with my whole self. That means that we can finesse and deepen our spiritual tools and our emotional capacities in order to act as vessels in the world facilitating transformation, and supporting people and institutions to be most fully who they are.
Rabbi Julia Neuberger, 65, West London Synagogue and independent member of House of Lords
Neuberger, aka Baroness Neuberger of Primrose Hill, is one of Britain’s first female pulpit rabbis. She is an avid human rights crusader who is outspoken on the need for equal rights and treatment for everyone. She studied at Leo Baeck College under Louis Jacobs and was ordained in 1977.
I’m not a pioneer. Regina Jonas was the first woman rabbi in Germany pre-World War II, and perished in Theresienstadt… ordained in 1938. So my ordination 39 years later is not pioneering. I was a pioneer in that I was the second woman rabbi in the UK, but the first to have sole charge of a congregation, South London Liberal Synagogue.
I didn’t feel the need to prove myself because of my gender. My congregation was always keen to appoint me, and did not care whether I was male or female. I have felt a greater need to be tough about things in later years, especially not accepting any different employment conditions because I am a woman. That has been completely accepted and recognized by West London Synagogue, who have been great as a community since I arrived in 2011.
‘In the wider world, it’s improving, but still very slow’
There are far more women rabbis than when I started, and I feel very old in comparison. Several have reached senior positions. In the UK, the principal of Leo Baeck College is a woman, Deborah Kahn-Harris, the chair of the Reform rabbis is a woman, Sybil Sheridan. The movement rabbi for Reform Judaism is a woman, Laura Janner-Klausner.
In the wider world, it’s improving, but still very slow. The Orthodox community needs to get its act together, and it is excellent to see a senior woman at the Board of Deputies, representing all British Jews, Laura Marks, and Dina Brawer taking the lead in JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. Things are slow, but changing.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio, 48, pulpit in Sydney, Australia
Ninio was the third Australian-born woman to be ordained and one of the first female rabbis in New South Wales. She was the first female rabbi to serve at her congregation.
I definitely felt the need to prove myself because any mistakes I made would be reflected not only on me but on women in general and especially women as rabbis. I have struggled for 16 years of my rabbinate to be accepted in the same way as my male colleagues.
Definitely beyond my community in the broader [Australian] Jewish community where the majority of people affiliate with Orthodox synagogues I have felt great pressure to prove myself as equal to the men and just as capable and competent. But also within my own congregation.
Not everyone was happy to have a female rabbi and I still struggle with issues of gender. Gender has been at the forefront of my rabbinate which was a surprise to me, and it continues to be so. As time goes on and people know me it is less, but I think it comes out now in more subtle ways. In the early days people felt very comfortable to openly state that they liked me but did not want the woman rabbi doing whatever it was that they wanted done. Now, if people feel the same way, they do not feel as free to say it, but they will definitely make it known that they want the other rabbi who is male.
I felt and still feel that I had to be better than my male colleagues, that I was and still am not afforded the same space to grow and make mistakes. I had the same lessons as my male colleagues, I had the same exams, the same rigorous standards to meet to be ordained, but my authenticity is questioned in a way that theirs never is.
Dr. Einat Ramon, Jewish spiritual care educator at Schechter Institute
Ramon is a former dean of the Schechter institute in Jerusalem where in 2011 she founded the program “Marpeh.” The program, she says, is the only academic spiritual care training program in Israel, and one of the few in the world. Although an ordained rabbi, Ramon no longer uses her title.
It is true I no longer regard myself as a rabbi and I do not represent any religious establishment although I am religious and observant! Being just a layperson is great freedom for me as I do not need to follow any liberal or traditional dogmas — just the Torah, and that is a complicated but fascinating enterprise.
I hope to dedicate the rest of my professional life to the building of spiritual care in Israel and to the training of many chaplains. (Chaplains in Israel are not necessarily clergy.) I regard the chaplaincy as a good model for the coming together and daily relationship of men and women, who, while acknowledging their differences, should be able to build families, communities, professions and nations together.
Cantor Jalda Rebling, cantor for a renewal community in Berlin
Rebling is the first openly lesbian Jewish clergy in Germany. A longtime musician and born into a musical family, Rebling first studied in a cantorial program, and was eventually ordained as a cantor in 2007 by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s Jewish renewal movement.
I started the journey because I wanted to learn nussach [different musical traditions]: As a specialist for Jewish music I looked for the sources. In 2003 in Germany, nobody could teach it to me — and those who knew it never would teach a women.
It took a long path for me to find joy in being a Jew. This joy I found after I learned to mourn, in the United States during my education at the ALEPH cantorial program.
The “denominations” don’t fit anymore. Small communities have no funding for rabbis or cantors. Also, as Limmud [Jewish educational conference] gets more and more people joining them, a paradigm shift happens. May it strengthen our Jewish identity and knowledge in this world. And may we be able to acknowledge each other in our Jewish diversity.
Rabbi Valerie Stessin, certified chaplain, Jewish educator
Stessin was born in France in 1964 and made aliyah at age 17. She was the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement in Israel, at the Schechter Institute for Jewish studies in Jerusalem in 1993. Currently she is working in the field of pastoral care, which is relatively new in Israel.
I had to meet all the difficulties of being among the first to enter a traditionally very male role in a society which is still very “macho.” I worked at the Tali education fund and found I always have to battle to bring more consciousness about the inequality between the sexes in Judaism.
One of the best examples of the difficult struggles is the Women of the Wall. I began to be more involved two years ago and was arrested in April 2013 with four other women because I was praying with a tallit and singing out loud… It was an amazing experience to be arrested for doing a mitzvah in the Jewish state.
Rabbi Diana Villa, lecturer at the Schechter Rabbinical School
Villa, one of the first women ordained by the Schechter Rabbinical School in Jerusalem, was already a well-known teacher and scholar, and received her ordination in 2000.
There were almost no role models at the time. I also researched the issue of solutions to the agunah [chained woman] problem in Jewish law, together with Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg z”l and am probably the only Conservative scholar in this field in Israel today… I have become a reference for many rabbis all over the world in questions of Jewish law.
Women rabbis are still a minority of rabbis, even more so in Israel (it is a very small group of people, even considering those affiliated to other movements), where many people feel it is something strange and I believe it is still more difficult to get a job as a woman rabbi than as a male rabbi.
Rabbi Elana Zelony, 37, pulpit in Richardson (Dallas), Texas
Zelony’s first job was in a congregation that had been Orthodox up until seven years before she was brought in as the assistant rabbi.
People expressed doubts about my abilities to do the job because of my sex. I found that I worked long hours and gave 110% to the job mostly because I’m passionate about my work, but also to establish my position in the community.
In my current position I still work just as hard, but it’s not because I feel the need to prove myself in the field as a woman. I just love the work I do!
I was invited to interview in as many congregations as my male colleagues when I was looking for work, and I felt that contract negotiations were fair.
On the other hand, I almost always was asked some version of the question, “How will you balance your professional obligations with being a wife and mother?” This is something my male colleagues were never asked. On one occasion I was even slapped on the behind by the president of the congregation during the interview.