We Can Do It: Women Rabbis in Judaism
by Anna Shneyderman, Intern
Over the summer, I interned at Lilith Magazine, a Jewish feminist publication. As part of my responsibilities, I went through archived issues and formatted them for easy online access. I surveyed decades of Jewish feminist history—and what particularly struck me was Lilith‘s coverage of women rabbis.
While women are not ordained as rabbis within Orthodox synagogues like Eldridge Street, they have been ordained in other Jewish denominations. The movement for women’s ordination is a relatively recent one. Here is a history of women rabbis—even one with a six-degrees-of-separation connection to Eldridge Street!
Rabbi Regina Jonas, pictured above, was the first woman to ever be ordained as a rabbi. This took place not in 1970s America, but in 1930s Germany. Jonas studied at the Academy for the Science of Judaism, where women were permitted to take courses. Jonas’ thesis topic: “Can A Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Jonas believed women could be ordained in a manner consistent with halacha. However, many of the faculty disagreed with Jonas and refused to ordain her. Jonas was later privately ordained by Rabbi Max Dienemann. Her rabbinic career was tragically cut short by her death in Auschwitz.
Some more Jewish women trailblazers:
Sally Preisand (Reform, 1972) was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in America.
Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist, 1974) was the first woman Reconstructionist rabbi. Here is our six-degree-separation connection: The founder of Reconstructionist Judaism was Mordecai Kaplan, who grew up in an Orthodox home and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah here at Eldridge Street!
Amy Eilberg (Conservative, 1985) was the first woman Conservative rabbi.
Though no women were ordained at Eldridge Street, there is a strong female history here. One of the synagogue’s most beautiful views is seen standing from the historic women’s balcony. From up high, you can see the intricate architectural details of the sanctuary’s interior contrasted with the stunning modern east window, which was designed by two women—artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans.
When I give tours of the sanctuary, I always finish with a story at this balcony. In 1902, two women marched down into the men’s section—interrupting services—and rallied for support in the boycott of kosher meat following an unfair raise in prices. These Jewish women, among many others, successfully used progressive tactics to fight for their long-held traditions, despite it being years before women’s suffrage in America.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about women’s ordination and Jewish feminism, check out these three articles on the road to ordination for women in the Conservative movement. They are from Lilith‘s archives and have been made public specially for the Museum’s readership.