Overlooked by history books, women rabbis write themselves in
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'If someone didn't record these stories, they too would be lost someday'

Overlooked by history books, women rabbis write themselves in

A Los Angeles women’s theater helps female clergy reclaim their birthright — on the stage and page

Lisa Robins shares a story about dating a Rabbi who is in her 40s. Lisa Cirincione, Kate Zentall, and Robert Trebor listen. (Courtesy)
Lisa Robins shares a story about dating a Rabbi who is in her 40s. Lisa Cirincione, Kate Zentall, and Robert Trebor listen. (Courtesy)

As spiritual leaders around the world prepare to lead prayers this fall, a dedicated team has been gathering the stories of women rabbis.

“As soon as we started speaking with them, we realized how rich their narratives are and what a powerful story they have to tell,” says Ronda Spinak, artistic director of Jewish Women’s Theatre & The Braid in Los Angeles.

Collecting their tales revealed a shattering of what some consider “the stained glass ceiling” and exposed both the struggles and inspiration of the increasing ranks of female rabbinic leadership.

The material not only serves as the basis of a recently staged theatrical production directed by Spinak, it also comprises the Story Archive of Women Rabbis (SAWR). This digital, web-based collection of poignant stories, insights and points-of-view is designed to preserve the struggles and triumphs of trailblazing women for future generations. Managed and housed by the Jewish Women’s Archive, the project will be celebrated in late October in the Boston area.

Launched with the stories of 25 rabbis from the United States, Israel, France, Germany, and Great Britain across denominations, JWA plans to enhance the “Women Rabbis” archive by adding the stories of 25 new rabbis annually over several years. The collection is organized both by individual and by theme, to give the viewer different entry points into the exhibit and to demonstrate the rabbis’ individual and shared experiences.

‘Although the rabbinate has been open to women for only a short period of time, their impact has been profound’

“We are so pleased to launch and host this important new collection,” says Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Women’s Archive. “The stories these trailblazing women tell — from the obstacles they encountered along the way to the rabbinate, to the amazing communities and practices they have innovated — are moving, honest, and inspiring.

“Although the rabbinate has been open to women for only a short period of time, the impact of women on the profession, and on the global Jewish community, has been profound, and it’s an honor to share their individual, and collective, stories on jwa.org alongside those of so many other Jewish women,” says Rosenbaum.

The concept dates back to 2009 when Spinak joined with Los Angeles rabbi Lynne Appel to create a play telling the stories of women rabbis. Janis Nelson, Chairman of Jewish Women’s Theatre, joined the team. They conducted extensive interviews with 18 Los Angeles women rabbis to gather material. The resulting documentary theater piece, “Stories From the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!” was first produced at Jewish Women’s Theatre’s At-Homes Salon, 2010.

“What began as an idea for a play has grown into the world’s only collection of video interviews with women rabbis who have radically changed the landscape of Judaism and worship,” says Spinak, who co-wrote the production after combing through 1,000 pages of transcripts to select what she considers the “best, most moving, thought-provoking stories.”

Lisa Cirincione, Lisa Robins, and Kate Zentall tell stories from 18 Los Angeles women rabbis. (Courtesy)
Lisa Cirincione, Lisa Robins, and Kate Zentall tell stories from 18 Los Angeles women rabbis. (Courtesy)

The “Woman Rabbis” archive’s introduction comes at a significant moment. The Orthodox Union recently called for a commission to offer guidance regarding the ordination of women. Rabbi Avi Weiss, who founded Yeshivat Maharat along with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, and serves as rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit, questions the direction in which the commission appears to be heading.

Meanwhile, next year marks the 45th anniversary of the ordination of Sally Priesand in the Reform Movement in 1972.

“We’d like to see many synagogues around the country producing this show,” Spinak says.

‘What began as an idea for a play has grown into the world’s only collection of video interviews with women rabbis’

The JWT production reveals the little known stories of faith, love, rejection, acceptance and gratitude from some of LA’s most-known women rabbis. These include Rabbis Sharon Brous of IKAR, Naomi Levy of Nashuva, Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, Laura Geller, Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel, Zoë Klein of Temple Isaiah, as well as Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University and Karen Fox, Emerita at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

The show recently concluded a short-run of six performances in Santa Monica, Calif. With the launch of a new online exhibit, the archive that serves as the basis for the play is now available at the JWA website.

“The personal journeys, challenges, and spiritual paths of these rabbis have inspired me and connected me more deeply to my own Jewish faith,” says Lynne Himelstein, who is both co-director of the LA-based Story Archive of Women Rabbis (SAWR) and a board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first female ordained rabbi in America. (Courtesy of Priesand)
Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first female ordained rabbi in America. (Courtesy of Priesand)

In late October a public program will celebrate the launch of the archive. Entitled “Uncharted Journeys: Women Rabbis and the Transformation of Jewish Life An Evening of Stories and Song,” it features Rabbis Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Dean of Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, Angela Warnick Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York, Dianne Cohler-Esses of Romemu, NYC, the aforementioned Laura Geller and Claudia Kreiman of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Massachusetts. The women will reflect on their roles and experiences as spiritual guides, scholars, Jewish communal leaders, social activists, healers and teachers.

The first 20th century woman of record to serve as a rabbi was Regina Jonas, who spoke about her passion for Jewish tradition as early as high school, and was a believer in halakha ordained privately in Nazi Germany.

Her death in Auschwitz and the loss of her papers behind the Iron Curtain, however, kept her story hidden from the world. The new archive honors Jonas within several sections of the new online archive.

The first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, at her ordination. (courtesy)
The first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, at her ordination. (courtesy)

The Jewish Women’s Archive describes itself as the largest collection of information about Jewish women’s contributions to the Jewish world, and strives to ensure that the stories, voices, and achievements of Jewish women are included in the historical narrative and shape contemporary discourse.

JWA’s partner in the archive, the Jewish Women’s Theater, also staged “The Blessing of a Broken Heart,” the memoir of The Times of Israel contributor Sheri Mandell, earlier this year.

JWT’s artistic director Spinak was studying Torah and noticed the scant stories of women when she realized she had an opportunity to preserve the experiences of her contemporaries.

“It occurred to me that if someone didn’t record the stories of women rabbis that they too would be lost some day,” Spinak says. “We culled through 1,000 pages of transcripts and cherry-picked the most moving, inspiring, and funny stories… I love that these women who broke the ‘Stained Glass Ceiling’ are seen as scholars, women, leaders, and hurt children. We see them in all of their humanity.”

Lisa Robins plays bereaved mother Sherri Mandell in playwright/director Todd Salovey's 'The Blessing of a Broken Heart' in a February 2016 performance in Los Angeles. (Zachary Andrews)
Lisa Robins plays bereaved mother Sherri Mandell in playwright/director Todd Salovey’s ‘The Blessing of a Broken Heart’ in a February 2016 performance in Los Angeles. (Zachary Andrews)

The role of women rabbis surprises some audiences.

“They learn that sometimes God says, ‘No,’” Spinak says. “That some women don’t have the blessing of children and family, though every day they are helping those who do move through life, celebrate simchas. But that like all of us, there is something that just didn’t work out the way we thought and yet we can celebrate the blessings we do have.”

Dramatic turning points in the theatrical production, Spinak says, occur when the actor performs Naomi Levy’s story of belief followed by a loss of belief when her father was murdered in a mugging.

“She takes us on her journey of hating God,” Spinak says. “But then, in college, she comes to understand that God isn’t Superman, who swoops down and saves people. Because if God’s job description is evil prevention, then God is inept. So that can’t be what God is. Once she understood that, she could stop hating God and start listening to God.”

The material also allows audiences to understand more about the motivations of women rabbis. “‘Being called’ [to the rabbinate] happens in many ways,” Spinak says. “There are many kinds of jobs for women rabbis. There is joy and beauty to being a rabbi.”

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