An Evening with Female Legends in Berlin

This evening I was privileged to see history in the making, attending a forum honoring the first woman rabbi, Germany’s Regina Jonas. Jonas was ordained by Rabbi Max Dienemann in 1935, but her memory had been largely lost to history until some of her papers were discovered in 1991. Co-sponsored by the American Jewish Archives and Jewish Women’s Archive, the forum was held at Centrum Judaicum in what was once the women’s section of the New Synagogue in Berlin and featured a panel discussion among modern “firsts:”

  • Rabbi Sally Priesand (first woman ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1972)
  • Rabbi Sandy Sasso (first woman ordained from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 1974)
  • Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick (first woman ordained from Leo Baeck College, 1975)
  • Rabbi Amy Eilberg (first woman ordained at Jewish Theological Seminary, 1985)
  • Rabba Amy Hurwitz (first Orthodox woman ordained, by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, 2009)
  • Rabbi Alina Treiger (first woman ordained from Abraham Geiger College, 2010)

Approximately 100 people heard these pioneers discuss how they chose to become rabbis, addressing not only the obstacles and naysayers, but also the supporters, mentors, and advocates they encountered along the way. Several recall using humor to connect with skeptics as well as with those who simply did not know what to think of a woman rabbi. Each had a strong commitment to her role in preparing the way for those who would follow her… while none had chosen this path with the intent of making history, they certainly recognized that they were being watched and were setting important precedents.

Each of these leaders gave her perspective on what changes when the rabbi is a woman. They credited women in the rabbinate with sweeping changes in liturgy and theology, making the sanctuary accessible to women, providing a clergy member with whom a woman can be comfortable discussing the most personal of topics, and giving women a way to see themselves in Torah. Rabbi Sasso characterized this last point as “nothing short of a revolution.”

Rabbi Hurwitz was not able to travel from Israel due to the flight bans currently in place, but she actively participated by phone. Rabbi Tabick expressed her pleasure at finally meeting her North American counterparts in person. As the program concluded, all women rabbis in attendance moved to the stage for introductions and pictures–an incredibly emotional moment for all present.

The most important message of the evening? Tell the story!

Women rabbis are being encouraged to send their files to the appropriate archives to ensure those records will be available to future researchers, not running the risk of being lost as Rabbi Jonas’ story nearly was. As we know from WRJ’s Centennial year, archival records can be an extraordinary and invaluable resource.

Speaking of Women of Reform Judaism… WRJ was recognized in particular by Rabbi Treiger, who cited WRJ’s sponsorship and after the program told me quite directly that she would likely not be a rabbi if not for that support.

Tomorrow we will place a marker at Terezin in Rabbi Jonas’ memory. I look forward to sharing more of her story with you.

Thoughts from Israel as “Operation Protective Edge” Continues

by Rabbi Stanley M. Davids

As the tragedy in Gaza and throughout Israel continues to unfold, it might be helpful to share some of our personal experiences and feelings.  You certainty don’t need our letters to get the latest facts on the ground, though it is obvious to us that much of what is being reported as facts by multiple sources throughout the world may fall short of reaching the status of objective truth.

Wherever we go, public buildings have little signs pointing out where the nearest bomb shelters are to be found. This is comforting, of course. It’s also quite disturbing for those of us who are trying to pretend that we are really continuing to live a normal life. We were shocked to discover that that are many housing units throughout Israel that do not have bomb shelters near at hand. Some of our kibbutz cousins in the Negev, well within reach of missiles, have only an entrance hall which is somewhat secure.

By the way, denial is an effective defense against reality for only a limited amount of time. We have pretty much passed that limit.

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Voices of WRJ: Parashat Masei

“Birth is a beginning and death a destination; But life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage.” So goes the poem written by Alvin Fine. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is part of our Yizkor liturgy.

This week’s parashah is called “Masei” which means “journeys.” This is of course associated with the segments of the journey of the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

The parashah, however, tells us not so much of the “journeying” but rather of the stops they made along the way–42 in all.  Egypt was called “Mitzrayim” by the Israelites, meaning “a narrow place, or a place of confinement.” Thinking in personal terms, these steps or stages can be said to mirror our own lives as we journey on our own personal “exodus from Egypt” toward our destination, which would be the spiritual counterpart of the Land of Israel.

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Under Siege: Jerusalem

by Resa and Rabbi Stanley Davids

We made Aliyah on February 22, 2004. We were sitting in our taxi happily chatting about our decision to center our lives in Israel when we approached our new home. As we slowed to make a turn, we looked right and saw a destroyed bus stop. Earlier that day, a suicide bomber had blown up a bus with school children there.

A memorial is now affixed to a wall near that bus stop, a memorial for murdered Jewish children. For us, that memorial is a touchstone connecting us to our arrival home. We often walk past that spot; we never fail to discuss how our souls are connected to it. And now fast forwarding many years…

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An Account of Life in Israel

by Janet Toar

How can I write an account of what it is like to live through alerts, sirens, constant worry… to be so immersed in minute-by-minute reporting; thoughts of soldiers, political and military decision makers, children’s reactions, world opinion, and the effect on tourism, economy, quality of life, our personal and national security, and our future here. While I could not represent anyone other than myself, in my story there may be a common thread with others who are psychologically and physically swept up with the dangers literally on our front steps.

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Voices of WRJ: Parashat Pinchas

This week we celebrate our foremothers Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah, the daughters of Zelophehad, whose model of advocacy for social justice still stands thousands of years later.

Zelophehad has died in the wilderness, leaving no son to inherit. Traditionally, land was inherited through the male line but Zelophehad had died leaving five daughters and no sons. When the allocations were being made to the tribe of Manasseh, the Torah says that the daughters of Zelophehad came forward and, “stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting,” and they said in part, “Our father died in the wilderness…he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen (Numbers 27:2-4)!”

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From Suffrage to Hobby Lobby: Jewish Women’s Advocacy

[Adapted from ‘Why Advocacy is Central to Reform Judaism’ published by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, 2007]

“We are a fellowship of women, religiously motivated… dedicated to the service of Jewish and humanitarian causes through the centrality of Judaism, the religion through which we translate our beliefs into deed for the benefit of K’lal Israel (the whole of the household of Israel) and mankind.”

So wrote Dr. Jane Evans, first Executive Director of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (NFTS, now WRJ) in a 1949 statement on the philosophy of our organization. For Dr. Evans, the two bedrock principles of WRJ were, first, the centrality of our Jewish faith, and, second, our devotion to social justice. For her, a belief in Judaism inevitably led to a passion for justice–and the demand that we act collectively to make the dream of a better world a reality.

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Voices of WRJ: Parashat Balak

by Rachel Lambermont

This week’s Torah portion Balak contains the story of Balak who hires Balaam to curse the Israelite people because they are getting too large in number. Balaam sets forth to locate the Israelites on his donkey and along the way, the donkey swerves three times and tries to turn around to change their path. After Balaam then beats the donkey, God intervenes and allows Balaam to see the angel that has been placed before the donkey, which allows him to learn that God does not want him to curse the Israelites but rather to bless them.

This story resonates with me because the donkey’s actions offer different perspectives. This is something that comes up in our sisterhoods all of the time, and even comes in our lives. How many times are we put in a position to make a decision and we only think of one way of doing things? Maybe it is the voice in our heads saying it’s never been done this way before. Or maybe it is self-doubt at our own abilities to rise to a new challenge. Only when we look to our peers do we see that there may be another way and that others have a different perspective on the situation that may be important.

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Supreme Court facade.

Advocacy Update: The Court Rules for Hobby Lobby

There has been a great deal of interest in the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, which pitted the religious liberty interests of owners of closely held for-profit corporations against the right of their female employees to contraception health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) has a history of advocacy on many of the issues touched by this decision, including religious liberty, reproductive rights, and women’s equality. Along with other arms of the Reform Movement, WRJ had submitted amicus briefs in the case urging the Court to determine that the rights of a corporation should not trump the religious liberty rights, or health care interests, of employees, even in cases where a corporate employer objects to providing contraception coverage for religious reasons.

The Court’s Ruling Read more…

Reform Movement Decries Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Decision

This piece originally appeared at RACblog.

In their 5-4 ruling yesterday, the Supreme Court found that closely-held corporations – like Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties – may seek an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. Although Justice Samuel Alito attempted to curtail the decision to apply only for exemptions to the contraception mandate, this ruling could be construed down the line to allow other closely-held corporations to seek other exemptions under RFRA from further health insurance requirements and civil rights laws. In response to the ruling, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Steve Fox, CEO of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Council of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism jointly issued a statement:

“We bemoan the Supreme Court’s decision today, which, in ascribing the same religious free exercise rights to closely-held for-profit corporations that are essential to individuals and religious associations, allows countless numbers of corporations to limit women’s access to reproductive healthcare that those women seek. We also acknowledge the Court making clear that this ruling applies only to the contraception mandate and does not provide for exemptions for coverage of other health care needs or from statutes barring illegal discrimination.”

You can read the statement in its entirety here. Read more…