In the four decades since Sally Priesand—the first American woman rabbi—was ordained in 1972, women have revolutionized what the rabbinate looks like. This coming Saturday night, Oct. 29, five women rabbis with diverse life experiences—Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Angela Warnick Buchdahl, Dianne Cohler-Esses, Laura Geller and Claudia Kreiman—will come together to reflect on their roles in synagogues, rabbinical schools and their Jewish communities in a program at Hebrew College called “Uncharted Journeys: Women Rabbis and the Transformation of Jewish Life – An Evening of Stories and Song.”
In addition to their roles as rabbis, these women are also trailblazers. Cohen Anisfeld is the first woman to lead a rabbinical school; Warnick Buchdahl is the first Asian-American rabbi; Cohler-Esses is the first woman rabbi brought up in the Syrian-Jewish community; Geller was the first woman to be appointed to lead a large metropolitan synagogue as a senior rabbi; and the Chilean-born Kreiman’s rabbinate honors her mother who died in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA community center for Jewish life in Buenos Aires.
The program, supported by The Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, is dedicated to the memory of Edgar M. Bronfman and has been inspired by Bronfman’s vision of a Jewish community that celebrates diversity, embraces innovation and nurtures young leadership. Sponsored by Hebrew College, the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) and Temple Beth Zion, the evening program will be moderated by JWA’s executive director, Dr. Judith Rosenbaum.
In a recent interview with JewishBoston, Rosenbaum, a historian, observed that the program comes at an interesting moment in time. “We’ve reached a point where we can look back and assess what the impact of women [in the rabbinate] has been,” she said. “There are now multiple generations of female rabbis, the first generation is beginning to retire, and the story of women in the rabbinate is becoming part of our history.”
That history is vividly archived in an online exhibit on the JWA site entitled “Women Rabbis.” “Uncharted Journeys” is based on this exhibit, and Rosenbaum described it as “an in-person program that brings the content off the computer screen and into a more communal, interactive setting.”
The exhibit itself is a collaboration between the Los Angeles-based Story Archive of Women Rabbis and JWA. Story Archive of Women Rabbis had originally interviewed their subjects in Los Angeles for a show that was produced for Jewish Women’s Theater. The project soon grew to include interviews with over 160 women rabbis from around the world. “The Story Archive came to JWA when they wanted to make these rich interviews accessible to the world,” Rosenbaum recalled. “We intend to add [the stories] of 25 women rabbis each year for the next several years. We’ve curated the stories so that you can explore them according to each rabbi’s individual story, as well as thematically.”
The method gives shape to what Rosenbaum called “the snowball approach” to collecting stories. “The Story Archive of Women Rabbis started out collecting local stories and expanded from there, recording whatever stories they could,” she said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment and a diverse collection.” However, said added, “when you look at all the experiences of women rabbis together, even though their experiences are quite diverse, certain patterns emerge that have raised a whole host of questions about how we construct our spiritual communities and the public role for leadership in Jewish life. Their stories both describe the transformation of Jewish life and challenge us to continue a process of transformation.”
The seven themes that Rosenbaum and her staff identified as common in the rabbis’ stories are: The Path to the Rabbinate; Being Different; Leadership; Prayer and Spirituality; Crisis; Making Change; and Role Models.
For Cohen Anisfeld, history and storytelling meet lived experience in the important work of mentorship. “Young women studying to be rabbis now have role models that earlier generations never had,” she said. “One of my interests is inviting women to bring their voices to the table in a full way. Mentors can be extraordinarily helpful in that regard. Over the last 26 years working as a rabbi, I have seen among my colleagues, friends and students that women still tend to struggle with this issue of voice, of taking up space and allowing themselves to be heard. The whole community is impoverished—and our understanding of Torah is diminished—when women’s voices are subtly or explicitly silenced. We have made so much progress, but there is still work to be done. Some of it entails working with our own internalized sexism—are we ‘real rabbis’?—and some of it involves addressing the sexism that is still very much out there, and that many of us encounter on a regular basis.”
For Cohler-Esses, not having any role models in her traditional Syrian-Jewish community made it difficult “to internalize my authority. Did I have permission to do this, to allow people to call me a rabbi?”
Rosenbaum noted that the first women rabbis “were not necessarily looking to shake up tradition particularly, but just by virtue of being women in a position that women had not held to that point, they created change.”
Cohler-Esses said that change took time to implement. She recalled a class at the Jewish Theological Seminary taught by the dean of the rabbinical school, in which he was explaining the duties of a rabbi who implicitly had the help of a wife. “He laid out the whole schedule of the week,” she said. “I raised my hand and asked, ‘When does one prepare for Shabbat? When do you cook and clean? How do you become a rabbi and have family time and time for a personal life?’”
“Women Rabbis,” the exhibit, proves to be the ultimate feminist experience. Rosenbaum explained that one of feminism’s greatest insights is to take individual experiences and share them to recognize that, “There is a larger political framework in which we are all living and shaping our lives.”
For Rosenbaum and the five rabbis participating in “Uncharted Journeys,” it also presents a new and unprecedented wave of Jewish thought and practice, and yet another uncharted kind of territory.