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Women rabbis building communities worldwide
February 21st, 2003
Kenosha In mid-January, I had the opportunity to attend an historic conference and to reflect upon a piece of Jewish history in which I have had a small role.
From Jan. 19-22, I joined close to 100 delegates in London at the first international conference of the Womens Rabbinic Network. Having been one of only 35 women to attend the first WRN meeting in New York City in 1980 (when I was a rabbinical student), the recent conference gave me an opportunity to look back on the history of women in the rabbinate.
The gathering also provided a glimpse of the contributions that female rabbis are making to the revitalization of Jewish life around the world today.
WRN represents the 373 women rabbis in the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the umbrella organization of the Reform rabbinate. This was the first time the group held its biennial meeting outside of the United States and included rabbis from around the world.
During the four-day conference, held at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, rabbis and rabbinical students from the U.S., U.K., Belarus, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Israel, Norway and South Africa prayed together in more than 10 languages, studied sacred texts, shared their stories of success and strife and took stands to affirm their solidarity with women around the globe.
The event was both nostalgic and invigorating. As I walked into the opening reception, I saw faces from the past many of the same women who were at the 1980 conference. At that time, all of the female rabbis in the world (most of whom were living on the eastern seaboard of the United States) knew each other by name if not also by face.
Nachas for grandmothers
Those of us who have been in the field for 20 years or more sometimes feel like the grandmothers of the group and, indeed, some are grandmothers. One has already reached the age of retirement (but has no plans to retire).
Many of our younger colleagues came to the event with babies and toddlers, aided by on-site child-care. Delegates just a few years my senior recalled that childbearing was a controversial choice in the early days of womens ordination.
Could one be both a full-time rabbi and a mother? Would a choice to delay ordination or full-time employment to stay home with a baby prevent one from being taken seriously as a rabbi? Today, in the professional world in general and the rabbinate in particular, those questions do not seem to loom so large.
There are still concerns about placement and salary equity between male and female rabbis today. Such issues were addressed at the conference. But the professional and scholarly contributions of women rabbis of the present and the promise of the future were the real foci of the event.
One of the highlights of the conference was the opportunity to learn about the work my colleagues are doing in bringing the vitality of liberal Judaism to Europe, Israel and the former Soviet Union.
The shadow of the Holocaust remains a black hole in most European countries; and liberal rabbis there are hard at work trying to bring a positive, celebratory, spiritual Judaism to those who continue to live with a real fear of persecution.
The energy and enthusiasm of my female colleagues and the sense of a new and revitalized Judaism that they bring with them is helping to infuse these scarred communities with new life.
Women rabbis are also building exciting Jewish communities all over Israel and attracting hundreds of formerly secular Jews to the beauty of a modern religious way of life.
One the most interesting moments for me was an address by FSU Rabbi Nelly Shulman. Although there are 85 Reform congregations in the FSU, Shulman is one of only three Reform rabbis.
Since Perestroika, liberal Judaism has caught on like wildfire among our FSU co-religionists. Shulman, although greatly overworked, is brimming with enthusiasm about the revitalization of Jewish life in her country.
Having attended this conference, I now have a better appreciation of the reach and influence female rabbis have had since the ordination of Rabbi Regina Jonas in Germany in 1935 and especially since the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand in Cincinnati in 1972.
My small contribution as the first female rabbi in the upper Midwest has been replicated all over the globe. Twenty years ago, I was often told that I was the first female rabbi someone had ever met.
Today, not only are there few corners of the earth where the concept of a female rabbi is unknown, but, more important, the impact of our role as teachers and leaders in Jewish life is felt wherever Jews live.
It was exciting to be among the first, but it feels much more gratifying to be sharing my lifes work as part of a world-wide community.
Rabbi Dena A. Feingold is spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha.