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March 15, 1985 - Image 18

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

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Friday, March 15, 1985


Judaism's First
Woman Rabbi

Amy Eilberg:
"The liturgy has
a power for me."

She is traditional enough to keep kosher
and modem enough to answer "absolute-
ly" when asked if she labels herself a
feminist. Meet Amy Eilberg, the 30-year-
old preceptor in Talmud,'who is expected
to become Conservative Judaism's first
female rabbi at graduation from the
Jewish Theological Seminary of America
May 12.
Eilberg's smooth entry into the clergy
was assured several weeks ago, when the
Rabbinical Assembly, the placement arm
of the Conservative movement, approved
voting changes that clear the way for
female membership in the group. Eilberg
hailed the decision as marking "a great
day for American Judaism and American
Jewish women."
"As of today," she told reporters and
photographers at a seminary press con-
ference February 14, "Jewish women
need never again feel that their gender is
a barrier to their full participation in
Jewish life. They need never again doubt
the commitment of the Conservative
movement to complete equality for
Eilberg will be able to finish what is
normally a six-year rabbinical program in
one year's time, because she already has
much religious study behind her. When
she was accepted into the newly co-ed
rabbinical program at JTS last fall, she
was holding two masters degrees, one
from the seminary and one from the
Smith College School for Social Work. In
addition, she had finished all course work
required for a doctorate from the seminary.
After she graduates, she plans to join
her husband, Dr. Howard Schwartz, a
professor of religious studies at Indiana
University, and find a job either as a con-
gregational rabbi or hospital chaplain.
Eilberg comes from a family that is
Conservative, but less observant than
she, she said recently over coffee in a stu-
dent cafe near the Seminary. When she
was 14 years old, she announced to her
parents, Joshua Eilberg, a former
Democratic Representative from Penn-

sylvania, and Gladys, a social worker,
that she intended to start keeping
It was several years later that she
began to push for women's equality in
Jewish religious life. At 18, she began to
wear tallit and tefillin when she prayed.
At Brandeis University, which she at-
tended as an undergraduate, she worked
with other women to push for the in-
troduction of services in which females
could be included in the minyan.
Eilberg is short, slim and cordial. Her
brown hair contrasts strikingly with a
single shock of gray on her forehead.
Eilberg waited ten years to get the op-
portunity to join the clergy, as the JTS
postponed making a decision on accept-
ing women into the rabbinical program,
so it comes as no surprise that she
reveals a set and determined chin.
These days, she said, she is spending
a lot of time pondering how women will
carve out their new roles as rabbis. "I
think women are very different from
men," she said, noting that she hoped
that difference would be used "crea-
tively." Eilberg said she believes women
remain "particularly sensitive to issues
of relationships, family and cooperation,"
and thinks this will prove a plus for
women who enter the clergy.
Female and male rabbis will have to
"learn about each others' strengths,"
Eilberg said. They will also have to begin
to answer "whole sets of questions about
how women relate to a tradition created
in a society in which women were not
Eilberg has begun to answer some of
the questions for herself by combining
the traditional with the modern. In the
English version of prayers, she noted, she
prefers to avoid masculine reference to
God, as "he" or "father." But in Hebrew,
she sticks to the original. "The liturgy
has a power for me, a sanctity that I
would not be quick to change," Eilberg said.

- P.M.

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