IN NEW HANDS
How women have changed the rabbinate.
Special to The Jewish News
ost: Half of Judaism. We're Forming
a Search Committee for Women in
Judaism," the announcement
read.The sheet of paper was tacked
onto the wall of an elevator last fall
at the Hebrew Union College — Jew-
ish Institute of Religion in New York
City — a place, one would think, where Jewish women had
already been found. It was here, at the rabbinical school of
the Reform movement, that the first woman rabbi in Amer-
ica was ordained 20 years ago this spring.
When the Reconstructionist and, years later, the Conser-
vative movement followed suit, it seemed to many that the
"search" for women in Judaism had ended. They were to be
found in the same places as men — in the minyan, or quorum
of ten needed for public prayer; in the classroom studying
Talmud; and finally, in the pulpit.
And yet as more women have stepped into these roles from
which they were formerly excluded, they have found it un-
rewarding merely to mimic men.
Today, years after the first flush of egalitarianism, wom-
en rabbis and rabbinical students are beginning to focus more
on their own identity as women, fleshing out their own per-
spective and addressing their own concerns. In this new
light, they are re-examining every corner of Jewish life — from
life-cycle events to liturgy, from the interpretation of historic
texts to synagogue youth programs. In so doing, women are
revitalizing the seminaries, challenging the dogma of their
respective movements, and changing the very nature of the
"There's a feeling within the Reform movement that we've
accomplished everything the feminist movement has asked
of us, in that women and men are equal," says Jordan Mill-
stein, a senior rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College
(HUC). "But there are some deeper, attitudinal issues not re-
'What remained undefined is what it means to be a Con-
servative woman rabbi," echoes Sara Paasche, a first-year
rabbinical student at the Conservative movement's Jewish
Rifka Rosenwein is a reporter in New York. This article was made
possible by a grant from The Fund For Journalism on Jewish
Life, a project of the CRB Foundation of Montreal, Canada and
the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Any views expressed are solely
those of the author.
FRIDAY, JULY 17, 1992
Theological Seminary. The first victories allowed women to
fulfill what had always been a man's role, she explains. `That
was fine then. Now there's a shift. Women do bring some-
thing different. We want to figure out where the impact will
be on the rabbinate," Ms. Paasche says.
According to the 30 rabbis, academics, students and lay
leaders interviewed for this article, women rabbis and rab-
binical students have already had quite an impact — on cam-
puses, in congregations, and in community life — though
much remains to be done. Even in the Reform movement,
where women have been rabbis for 20 years, "there are still
glass ceilings" as Rabbi Sally Finestone, the Reform rabbi
and director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, puts it. Salary
disparities still exist between men and women. In the Re-
form and Conservative movements, women have not risen
to leadership ranks within the professional rabbinic organi-
zations. And there are no women serving as senior rabbis
in the largest, most visible pulpits in the country.
In each of the movements, there are more women rabbis
than men who choose to go into education, or campus Hillel
work or chaplaincies. This is due in part to the fact that many
congregations are still resistant to hiring women — and in
part because many women find congregational work too tax-
ing to manage while raising a family.
While these stumbling blocks remain, many of those in-
terviewed believe it is just a matter of time before women in-
filtrate all walks of rabbinic life, even in the Orthodox
movement, which does not permit women in the rabbinate.
In community work, on college campuses and in charita-
ble activities, Orthodox men and women are coming into con-
tact with women rabbis. They serve as "a very powerful model"
for Orthodox women who are making increasing gains in re-
ligious education and observance, says Blu Greenberg, an
Orthodox feminist and author. Eventually, says Mrs. Green-
berg, Orthodox women are going to ask, "why not me?"
In the meantime, it is in the rabbinic school of the liberal
denominations where women have made their most profound
impact. Women now constitute almost half of each gradu-
ating class at HUC, JTS and the Reconstructionist Rab-
binical College. Having women in the classroom has changed
the way students and teachers look at texts and how they
view the pastoral and religious responsibilities awaiting them.
"I was a student here before women were ordained. It's
[now] a different college altogether," says Professor Lawrence