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March 15, 1985 - Image 16

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-03-15

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Friday, March 15, 1985


t1, 1 41# I

Studying the Talmud
together, rabbinical
students Rhonda Nebel
and Iry Elson discuss
a passage in the
Jewish Theological
Seminary library.

male and female students. For the first time in the
institution's 99-year history, women began taking
part in the minyan of official campus services.
Louis Brush Dormitory, once a male-only residence
during the academic year, opened its doors to four
co-eds. Female faces started to appear in classes
on homiletics, the art of preaching sermons.
Nevertheless, beneath the surface alterations in
student life at JTS, change exists side-by-side with
a lingering, if quiet, debate over whether women
should become rabbis. It has also given rise to new
questions: How can a mother find adequate time
both for her children and the thrice daily prayers
required of all rabbinical candidates? Why should
women wear tallit and tefillin donned only by men
for centuries? What is the prohibition on females
— even if they are rabbis — to serving as witnesses
for events such as marriage or divorce? The women
who have spent the past six months grappling with
these and other issues, while trying to adjust to
their new role in Jewish life, range in age from
about 25 to 55. Many of them are older than their
male colleagues, as the wisps of gray in their hair
Among their ranks are people like Debra Cantor,
a 28-year-old graduate of Brandeis who favors
dangling earrings and who spices her comments
with Yiddish and Hebrew words. Cantor's story
reveals something of the determination shared by
the 20 women who stepped into a new world this
The dream of devoting her career to Jewish life
started when she was a child growing up in a small
Connecticut town. In those years, Cantor said
recently over a kosher lunch in the seminary's
modern cafeteria, she wanted to marry a rabbi. "I,
thought then I would know so much. I'd speak
Hebrew. I'd have so much Jewish knowledge," she
Perhaps it was the experience of sitting with a
group of senior high school friends, reading aloud
the first edition of Ms. magazine and finding "we
were so excited about it" that prompted a varia-
tion of the dream. Gradually, Cantor said, "the idea
of wanting to be a rebbetzin sort of changed."

Sometime later,. when Cantor was a college
sophomore majoring in Judaic studies, she listen-
ed to the lament of a male friend who could not
decide whether to apply to medical school or a rab-
binical seminary. She found herself blurting out:
"You're so lucky to have that opportunity. I know
that in a minute, I'd choose to be a rabbi."
By the time she was a senior in college, with an
academic record that would allow her to graduate
cum laude, it looked as if the doors at the Jewish
Theological Seminary (JTS) might open to female
rabbinical students. In 1977, Cantor enrolled in a
masters degree program at the Seminary, confident
that she would soon be able to transfer her credits
to the rabbinical school. But as she later learned,
invitation to the program would not be extended
to women for seven more years.
A classmate of Cantor's, Nina Beth Cardin, a
Baltimore native who now lives in New Jersey,
recently recalled the intensity of the debate on
female admission to the rabbinical school during
the late '70s. "The women's issue heightened the
divisions in the Conservative movement," she said.
"It was one thing if a rabbi on the other end of town
turned on the lights on Shabbat or rode to shul,
but somehow ordaining women affected
Furthermore, the campus became divided along
the lines of those who favored and those who op-
posed female ordination. "You knew who was af- -
filiated with which group and which belief," Car-
din noted.
Caritor cited an incident that illustrated.how the
seminary community struggled with the issue. One
day in class, a professor of hers launched into what
Cantor considered a diatribe against women's or-
dination. She confronted him afterward in his office.
"He was extremely gentlemanly and said: want
to give you a piece of good advice,' " she recalled.
" 'You are a good student. You have a good mind
for rabbinic text. You should become a teacher and
don't try to be a rabbi.'."
What made the situation all the more difficult
was that Cantor greatly admired her mentor. "I
came out of there, and I respected him," she said.

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