Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The changing face of Judaism:women Rabbis.

In Israel, the majority of Israeli Jews consider themselves "secular",- meaning that "the synagogue I don't go to (except for special events) is an Orthodox one",- i.e. all-male Rabbis and separate women's section.
However, there are now quite a few Conservative and Reform Movement Congregations scattered around the country. Their Rabbis are struggling to be accepted to perform recognised weddings and officiate at other rituals and ceremonies. The Chief Rabbinate is Orthodox and has all the powers in areas of personal status.

"I am not a female 'rav,' "I am a 'raba."
"I am not a female 'rav,'" says Elad-Appelbaum, "I am a 'raba." By emphasizing the female form of the traditional word for rabbi, Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, who will be ordained as a Conservative rabbi during Wednesday's ceremony, is also highlighting the special place of women in Judaism. She offers classes and singing sessions for women only and says that her style of leadership is inclusive and supportive, gathering opinions instead of having the final word.

"I make it a priority to help open doors for women," she says.
Elad-Appelbaum's sensitivity to the place of women in Judaism may be rooted in her own struggle for equality in the Jewish community. Growing up in an intellectual, Orthodox home in Jerusalem, she studied biblical and halachic (religious legal) texts at the progressive Orthodox Pelech high school in Jerusalem, then continued to study at a women's learning program at Kibbutz Ein Hanatziv.

Highly committed to a religious lifestyle, she was involved in maintaining a high standard of religious observance, but felt that doors were closed to her because of her gender.

While in high school, she attempted to pray with a minyan (prayer quorum) three times a day but found that the doors to the women's section were locked - literally.

By the time she was a university student, the situation had become clear to her. Although she had followed a similar path to the one traveled by her male friends - studying Jewish texts and teaching - they would have the option of being ordained as rabbis, while she would not.

"When I married, my husband and I began looking for a place where we could both feel comfortable religiously and we found it at a Conservative synagogue in Beit Hakerem," she says.

Today the pulpit rabbi at Kehillat Magen Avraham in Moshav Omer, near Beersheba, Elad-Appelbaum has taken her place in an old rabbinic chain, but she says she is up to the task of being a female pioneer.

"I think it is very important for women not only to get ordination but to be pulpit rabbis and to have the family life of a female rabbi as an example to the community," she says.

Although the idea of a woman at the helm of a community is still strange to some people, Elad-Appelbaum believes it may all be a matter what she calls "aesthetics."

The more people get used to seeing a woman leading a congregation at one of the 50 Masorati communities in Israel, the more natural it will become, she is convinced.

"I can't tell you how many women from all sectors within Israeli society - secular, settlers, modern-haredi - have opened up a dialogue with me about my role as a female rabbi. There is something about it that creates curiosity, which leads to important conversations," she explains.

Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon, acting dean of the Schechter Institute, has seen firsthand the growth of women rabbis within the movement from her perspective as the first Israeli-born ordained rabbi and a teacher of Jewish thought, literature and feminism at the institute.

"Twenty years ago, they were not ready to admit women to rabbinical school and now there are about as many women studying for ordination as men," she observes.

The TALI (augmented Jewish studies) schools, which provide a curriculum combining general and Jewish studies in a pluralist environment, reflect the kind of egalitarian environment that Ramon says is now characteristic of the movement. Although TALI teachers identify as everything from Orthodox to anti-religious, everyone respects the right of others to have their own views.

Perhaps because of this, the schools have become gathering places for pupils, even when school is out. On Purim in Gilo, for example, the TALI school Megila reading is a popular place to be - although most of the pupils' families are not affiliated with the Masorati movement.

Hagit Sabag-Yisrael, a Conservative ordainee, has served as the rabbi of the TALI schools in Ashkelon and in Yavne, and as a counselor and advisor in schools in Netivot and Beersheba. She believes that the center of Jewish life in Israel is not necessarily the synagogue but is often in the school or the beit midrash.

In Yavne, she has been instrumental in organizing learning programs for adults and programs in which parents and children learn together.

Like the Reform movement's Regev, Sabag-Yisrael believes that through the medium of informal study sessions and the creation of a community-wide sacred space, people who have not been exposed to Judaism will get connected.

"During my years of study, the beit midrash has been for me a place that embraced and enabled. It is the place where I was empowered as a woman - "an equal among equals" - a space for learning where 'any question can be asked' and fertile ground for academic and personal growth," she has said.

Empowered by her learning, Sabag-Yisrael would also like to form a coalition of women from all streams of Judaism to help those women who have been refused a get (divorce) or are dealing with other halachic difficulties.

According to Amir, all these challenges will take a long time and sustained effort to surmount. "Moving towards egalitarianism is a long process. It is not only about gender but about creating equality on every level of Israeli society," he says.

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