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November 09, 1990 - Image 107

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1990-11-09

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The Lon g Road

An Oak Park woman has taken the
pulpit as an assistant rabbi in Chicago.


Special to The Jewish News

n 1982, while Debra
Newman Kamin was
studying Jewish texts
for the very first time,
she found herself
dreaming of becoming a rab-
bi. But she didn't tell anyone
for a long time.
"I didn't know much and I
wondered what people would
think," says Rabbi Newman
Kamin, the new assistant
rabbi at Am Yisrael, a Con-
servative synagogue in Nor-
thfield, Illinois, a suburb of
Chicago. "I thought maybe
they would laugh at me and
say, 'You don't even know
anything yet, how can you
think about being rabbi?' "
But she didn't let her lack
of formal training in Judaism
stop her from considering her
options. At the time, only the
Reform and Reconstructionist
movements were ordaining
women rabbis, so she began
exploring these possibilities.
But in 1983 the Rabbinical
Assembly of the Conservative
movement made a landmark
decision to ordain women,
and Rabbi Newman Kamin,
who was raised in Oak Park,
Michigan, in the Conser-
vative tradition, was deter-
mined to become one of the
first Conservative women
rabbis. She is one of only 17
ordained Conservative
women rabbis, none of whom
are in Michigan.
Rabbi Newman Kamin's
early exposure to Judaism
began with a bat mitzvah at
Congregation Beth Shalom
and from her grandmother,
who was always a strong in-
fluence in her life. Upon
graduation from Oak Park
High School in 1978, she at-
tended the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor and
became involved with Hillel.
Her junior year of college was
spent in Israel, and it was
then that she began to think
of becoming a rabbi.
After graduating from U-M,
she started her rabbinical
training with one year at the


University of Judaism in Los
Angeles, followed by a year
studying in Israel. For the
past four years she has at-
tended New York's Jewish
Theological Seminary of
America, the rabbinical
school of the Conservative
While Rabbi Newman
Kamin was at the Seminary,
Rabbi David Nelson of Beth
Shalom invited her to return
to Oak Park to speak. Rabbi
Nelson was thrilled to
welcome back a former stu-
dent who was on her way to
becoming a rabbi.
"The barometer of a suc-
cessful synagogue is its abili-
ty to carry the message to the
next generation," says Rabbi
Nelson. "One of the ways to
do this is to have students
become interested in serving
as rabbis and cantors."
After she was ordained in
May, Rabbi Newman Kamin's
first choice was to become a
rabbi of a congregation, but

Rabbi Debra
Newman Kamin
at Am Yisrael in
Northfield, III.

she knew the majority of Con-
servative synagogues in the
country were not interested
in offering a position to a
woman rabbi.
"I was very lucky because
Am Yisrael is probably the
only Conservative synagogue
in the Chicago area that was
ready to hire a woman rabbi,"
says Rabbi Newman Kamin.
"If I didn't get this job offer
from Rabbi William Frankel
I don't think I would be work-
ing as a congregational rabbi
in Chicago."
Rabbi Frankel has lead Am
Yisrael for 22 years with a
liberal hand and an ega-
litarian philosophy. Women
have been encouraged to par-

ticipate fully in services from
the beginning, and Rabbi
Frankel sees hiring Rabbi
Newman Kamin as a natural
"When the time has come
for an idea, nothing can stop
it," says Rabbi Frankel. "It's
becoming a very natural
phenomenon to see women
rabbis on the pulpit. I've
never had a problem with it
and I came from a very tradi-
tional background. I was or-
dained as an Orthodox rabbi
and my parents were
Equal religious rights for
Jewish woman has been a
critical issue for Rabbi
Newman Kamin. Before she
decided to become a rabbi and
thought she would pursue a
career in Jewish communal
service, she contemplated em-
bracing Orthodoxy.
"I toyed with the idea but I
kept backing up against a
brick wall," says Rabbi
Newman Kamin. "I was

frustrated by their treatment
of women. I got sick of hear-
ing 'You can't do that . . . well
you can't read Torah . . . you
can't lead services . . . you
can't sit with your husband;
you have to sit with the rest
of the women in the back.' I
just couldn't accept that."
Rabbi Newman Kamin
believes one of the great
myths of Judaism is that peo-
ple see the Orthodox as the
"real Jews" and the true
representatives of the Jewish
"Unfortunately there aren't
many role models in the Con-
servative movement that
keep kosher and keep Shab-
bat, so if you're thinking of
doing those things it almost
seems logical to look towards
the Orthodox movement," she
says. "The problem is many
people take an all or nothing
position. Either they are go-
ing to go all the way and be
Orthodox, or they do nothing.
"I've never bought that con-
cept. I think it is a cop-out.
You do as much as you can,
and strive to do more at a
later point. You can't expect
to turn into a totally obser-
vant Jew overnight."
Not surprisingly, one of
Rabbi Newman Kamin's
favorite responsibilities as
assistant rabbi is to teach
adult bar and bat mitzvah
classes for people who wish to
become more religious later
in life. Her major function,
however, is to share the task
of leading services and giving
sermons with Rabbi Frankel.
She has only been at Am
Yisrael since the beginning of
August, but is finding her
congregation supportive. Rab-
bi Frankel is quick to remark,
"Not one member has resign-
ed because we hired a
"I think for some people it
may be a shock initially, like
it is when someone has a
woman doctor or lawyer for
the first time," says Rabbi
Newman Kamin, who is 30.
"It may be a little harder on-
ly because when you're deal-
ing with religious areas, peo-



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