Women On and Off the Bimah

by Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh

A photo appeared recently on Facebook. It was a picture of the women in my rabbinical school class and Rabbi Sally Priesand, taken on the morning of our ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and on the 40th anniversary of her ordination. Rabbi Priesand, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in the US, stood at the frontier of each of our rabbinates.

The import and significance of the photo, of the reality of her groundbreaking work and the honor bestowed upon us, to stand beside her has gradually dawned on me over the past few days. Impact of this magnitude takes time to settle, to sink in, to become internalized. Cantor Angela Buchdahl (who also is a rabbi) spoke and sang stunningly at our ordination, at this, the first ordination of cantors, 40 years after the first HUC-JIR ordination of women. She gave me and each of my classmates a charge: “Remember that you are not only ordained; you are entrusted to make memory. In this memory lies our Jewish future. It is an enormous, exhilarating responsibility you take on.”

Indeed it does feel exhilarating – exhilarating and awesome. In Hebrew, we use the same word for fear and awe (yir’ah). Often translated as fear, what it really suggests is awe. So I sit here today in awe, aware of the enormous responsibility entrusted to me.

At the time of this writing, I am on my way to attend a celebration in honor of my teacher Dr. Carol Ochs, who is receiving a Doctor of Religious Studies, honoris causa, from Simmons College “for her deep commitment to uncovering the philosophical and spiritual questions faced by all, and to sharing her perspectives and wisdom.”

The press release about the event states that she was “appointed to the faculty in 1967…and served as a Simmons College Professor of Philosophy for 25 years, eventually earning the distinction of Emerita Professor. She became the first woman to chair a science or humanities department at Simmons and helped to establish a major in philosophy. After leaving Simmons, Dr. Ochs went on to serve for 15 years at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Dr. Ochs served as Director of Graduate Studies and instituted the formal practice and teaching of spiritual guidance…She assisted more than 200 rabbinic and cantorial students, meeting with them at weekly one-on-one sessions to discuss spiritual questions and help them resolve religious doubts…”

I was one of those 200 rabbinical students, now rabbi, nurtured and taught by this extraordinary woman. She taught that all of life is binary. She forced us to ask, “Does this choice, this action, this decision bring you closer to or farther from the Divine?”

40 Years of Women on the BimahOn the morning of our ordination we learned that  Dr. Alyssa Gray, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a tremendously gifted academic is to be honored in the coming months by the College-Institute. The breadth and depth of her legal and Talmudic scholarship is remarkable, and the import of her influence on students—and the Jewish world—must never be underestimated.

Neither of these women was able to access the rabbinate with the freedom or openness afforded me. Both of these women have contributed beyond measure—beyond compare—to the nurturing and learning of the Reform rabbinate and ultimately to ensuring the Jewish future. I started to think about so many of the women at the New York School of HUC-JIR, and the men and women around the globe who, by choice or by circumstance never made it to the rabbinate, but who serve with all of their energy and essence to build and nurture and define the future of Judaism. We honor Rabbi Sally Priesand, who had the courage and the opportunity, as I have had, to fulfill a dream—the honor of serving the Jewish people as rabbi. How do we honor those who never had that chance?

On the morning of ordination, I stood beside Rabbi Priesand wearing the atarah of my mentor, Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, z”l. His widow had given it to me, and no honor could have been greater than to have been wrapped literally in the fabric of this garment that had belonged to such an extraordinary man. Finding myself with an extra tallit, a series of circumstances led me to lend my own tallit to my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, which he, in turn, wore during ordination. As my teacher wore my tallit and I wore the atarah of his teacher, the circle of Jewish time and tradition wove this honor upon my heart.

Today, as I undertake my role, as one “entrusted to make memory,” I invite us all to remember all those, both “on and off the bimah” whose sacred threads must be woven with our own as together we set about to make the memory that will be the Jewish future.

Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh was recently ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She previously worked in finance for nearly two decades.

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2 Responses to “Women On and Off the Bimah”

  1. avatar

    What a beautiful piece, and no surprise to this reader, who has known Rabbi Ilene Harkavy Haigh for more than 30 years and knows the rarified quality of her mind and her heart. This essay evokes the concentric circles that emanate with Rabbi Haigh at the center, surrounded by the history of women in the rabbinate. Just as that process has been 40 years in the making, your path has been long and somewhat circuitous but meaningful and dedicated. We’re all the richer for it! How lucky we are that you have made this journey, and I can’t wait to see what you continue to accomplish. The banking world’s loss is our immeasurable gain.

  2. avatar

    Very nice article. I read this on my phone, but missed the names of the accomplished women in the photo. If possible, please provide.
    Thank you.

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