02 October 2022
A long tradition
in Judaism of
reaches a landmark
Tradition has been less a barrier to ordaining women as rabbis than as priests or bishops. An innovative art exhibition in New York and Cincinnati earlier this year celebrated 50 years of women in the rabbinate in US. ‘Holy Sparks’ was organised by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and ‘The Braid.’
Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained 50 years ago, on 3 June 1972, becoming the first woman rabbi in the US. She opened the way for generations and she set in motion the first steps toward inclusion, diversity, equity, and empowerment of new cohorts of leaders for the Jewish people over the half century that followed.
‘Holy Sparks’ told the story of almost 1,500 women rabbis who have transformed Jewish tradition, worship, spirituality, scholarship, education and pastoral care, from the pulpit to the college campus, from philanthropic foundations to communal organisations and agencies, from military to healthcare chaplaincy.
first woman rabbi
Regina Jonas (1902-1944) was the first woman rabbi who was ordained in Germany in 1935. She served the Jewish community of Berlin and continued to help guide the Jewish community until her death in Auschwitz in 1944.
She was born in Berlin 120 years ago and was orphaned at a young age. She trained as a teacher and later enrolled at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies.
She graduated as an ‘Academic Teacher of Religion’ and her thesis asked, ‘Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?’ Her conclusion, based on Biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical sources, was that she should be ordained.
At first, she was refused ordination because she was a woman. Rabbi Leo Baeck, the spiritual leader of German Jewry who had taught her, also refused because the ordination of a woman as a rabbi would have caused serious divisions within the Jewish community in Germany. But, on 27 December 1935, she was ordained by Rabbi Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association, in Offenbach am Main.
Regina Jonas worked as a chaplain in Jewish social institutions while she tried to find a pulpit. Despite Nazi persecution, she continued her rabbinical work as well as teaching and holding services.
She was arrested by the Gestapo 80 years ago on 5 November 1942, and was deported to Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. There she continued her work as a rabbi, and Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist, invited her to help build a crisis intervention service to help prevent suicide attempts. She met the trains at the station and helped people cope with shock and disorientation.
Regina Jonas was deported with other prisoners to Auschwitz in mid-October 1944, and she was murdered soon after at the age of 42. She was largely forgotten until her work was rediscovered in 1991 by Dr Katharina von Kellenbach, a German-born researcher and lecturer at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland.
The New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse is one of the most eye-catching buildings in Berlin. And it is Berlin’s only Masorti synagogue. Gesa Ederberg became the first female pulpit rabbi in Berlin when she became the rabbi of the New Synagogue in 2007.
Gesa Ederberg’s appointment attracted attention not only because she is a woman and because her appointment was opposed by Berlin’s senior Orthodox rabbi, Yitzchak Ehrenberg, but because of her interesting background and life story.
She was born in Tübingen in 1968, and is married with three children. Born a Lutheran, she first visited Israel when she was 13 and slowly fell in love with Judaism. She studied physics, theology and Jewish studies in Tübingen, Bochum and Berlin and she converted to Judaism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1995.
After returning to Berlin, she taught Hebrew school and organised an alternative minyan at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, slowly taking on leadership roles in the community that has been at the centre of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community for 150 years.
Gesa Ederberg then entered a rabbinical school in Jerusalem, and she was ordained a rabbi in Jerusalem in 2003. Her first appointment was as the rabbi at the Jewish Community in Weiden, Bavaria, and in February 2007 she became the rabbi at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue in Berlin.
She established a Conservative Jewish beit midrash in Berlin, and is also the executive vice president of Masorti Europe. Her status as the first woman rabbi to serve in Berlin since the Holocaust has helped her reinvigorate the Jewish community in Germany.
A voice for compassion
and social justice
Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl is one of the most influential women rabbis in America, and is increasingly being heard as a Jewish voice of intellect and compassion in the US. She speaks out for diversity and social justice and against racism, she was the first Asian-American to be ordained as a rabbi, and the first Asian-American to be ordained as a hazzan or cantor.
Both Newsweek and the Daily Beast named her as one of the 50 ‘Most Influential Rabbis’ in America, she was recognised as one of the top five in The Forward’s list of American Jews who have had the most impact on the national scene, and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency listed her among the Jews who defined the previous decade.
She was born Angela Lee Warnick 50 years ago on 8 July 1972 in Seoul, South Korea, to a Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother, Sulja Yi Warnick, who is descended from King Taejo of Joseon.
Her father, Frederick David Warnick, was descended from Jews who moved to Canada and the US from Moinești in Bacău, Romania, and Zvenyhorodka or Zvenigorodka in central Ukraine. The Jewish community in Zvenyhorodka lasted for 200 years until it was decimated by the Nazis and finally destroyed by the Soviet Union.
Angela Warnick moved at the age of five to the US with her family. They attended Temple Beth El in Tacoma, Washington, a synagogue her great-grandparents had helped to found a century earlier. But from a young age she experienced demeaning comments from fellow Jews, doubting her Judaism.
At Yale, she was one of the first female members of Skull and Bones, a secret society whose members have included former President George W Bush and former Secretary of State John Kerry.
She met her husband Jacob Buchdahl, a lawyer, at Yale, and then studied at Hebrew Union College. She was invested as a cantor in 1999 and was ordained as a rabbi in New York in 2001.
She moved to Central Synagogue in Manhattan in 2006 as the senior cantor, and she succeeded Peter Rubinstein as the Senior Rabbi in 2014. She is the first woman and the first Asian-American to hold the post in the long history of Central Synagogue, and one of only a few women serving as leaders of a major US synagogue.
President Barack Obama invited her to lead the prayers in the White House at a Hanukkah celebration. She opened the doors of Central Synagogue to hundreds of worshipers from the nearby Islamic Society of Mid-Manhattan when their mosque was destroyed in a fire in 2019, a gesture that became national news throughout the US.
She has been recognised for her innovations in liturgical transformation, her role in social justice work and her work for a more inclusive Jewish community. ‘Judaism has a message for the world that should be attractive to anyone, and we should be less closed, or tribal, in feeling like it is only ours,’ she said in an interview with Haaretz.
The first Irish-born
The Dublin Jewish Progressive Synagogue in Rathgar has been supported by Rabbi Julia Neuberger and other visiting women rabbis and rabbinical students. But the first Irish-born female rabbi is Jackie Tabick, who became Britain’s first female rabbi in 1975.
She was born Jacqueline Hazel Acker in Dublin in 1948. She studied at University College London, and completed her rabbinical training at the Leo Baeck College.
She became the assistant rabbi at West London Synagogue under Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and later became the rabbi of North West Surrey Synagogue and then of London’s West Central Liberal Synagogue in Bloomsbury. She had also played a leading role in interfaith initiatives.
She is married to Rabbi Larry Tabick since 1975, and their son, Rabbi Roni Tabick, is also a rabbi in London.
In the past half century, woman have been ordained rabbis in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Syria and Ukraine.
‘In just 50 years, what was once unthinkable has become foundational’ says Dr Judith Rosenbaum of the Jewish Women’s Archive.
‘And the pioneering continues: more firsts will be achieved as the next generation of rabbis break new ground, building and changing communities around the world, and extending the inclusion that their presence as women in the rabbinate represents to other categories, such as race, sexuality, and disability.’
This two-page feature was intended for the October 2022 edition of the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough)