We’ve arrived!  Jewish women, that is. After generations of wilderness for Jewish women, two great events of the twentieth century helped to bring us to the Promised Land.  Both are being celebrated this spring, and it is a happy time to be a liberated Jewish woman.

Ninety years ago Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the innovative, courageous rabbi who dared to integrate the best of American values into Jewish life, brought his daughter Judith to the front of the congregation as a bat mitzvah.  It was the 1922, long before “Womens’ Lib” and feminism.  Judith was the oldest of four daughters, and at 12 years old, she was a still a child following her father’s directions. Only later could she become an activist, noted as an influential Jewish musicologist.

There is a tradition for men to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their becoming a bar mitzvah.  It’s a sweet and extremely meaningful life passageway. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein had a chance to embrace the role of bat mitzvah at a 70th anniversary service and celebration in 1992.  I had the privilege of being present at Judith’s second bat mitzvah, when the 82-year-old Judith read from the Torah (unlike her first time, when that was still unimaginable.) We still recall her heartfelt and moving devar Torah.  Those of us who gathered in a hall in Queens near the old World’s Fair grounds, were profoundly honored to share in celebrating not only a remarkable woman, but a life-altering moment in history that has changed American Judaism and women’s lives.

What a celebration of courage, innovation and Reconstructionism! Yes, that too — as Judith’s father, Rabbi Kaplan, was the influential rabbi who developed the ideas of Reconstructionist Judaism.

It took 50 years from Kaplan’s courageous revolution to reach the next great milestone.  In 1972 the first woman rabbi, Rabbi Sally Priesand, was ordained in the USA.  While Rabbi Regina Jonas had preceded Rabbi Priesand as the first woman rabbi, she had been ordained in Berlin in the 1930’s by a small, courageous group of liberal rabbis.  Tragically, Rabbi Jonas was murdered by the Nazi’s. Her story was nearly lost along with the community she so lovingly served in Germany of the camps. When Rabbi Priesand was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, many people thought she was truly the first.  Of course, she was — for us American Jews.  Her ordination, with all of the controversy and publicity it generated, was indeed a liminal moment for us. American Judaism and American Jews would never be the same again. Women rabbis would begin to change the face of Jewish leadership and Judaism itself.

Forty years ago when Rabbi Priesand was ordained, I was just a one-year out from my own bat mitzvah.  I had already had the benefit of Judith’s 1922 milestone, and despite the fact that there were no female role models for me in the Jewish community; it seemed absolutely natural to me that a woman should be ordained. When I heard that Rabbi Priesand had been ordained, I instantly announced that I would follow her lead and someday become a rabbi.

 

I am deeply indebted to Sally Priesand and all of the women who walked the path before my rabbinic ordination in 1987. During those first 15 years many of them endured prejudice and resistance. But they brought open hearts, incredibly smart heads, unbridled courage and passion for leading the Jewish world with new talent. We have all been transformed by their leadership. The relational, nurturing style that they have brought to the rabbinate has more than changed Jewish communities – it has facilitated a continued vibrancy for a community struggling with rapid change.

A month from now I will celebrate my own milestone – 25 years in the rabbinate. Personally, I feel tremendous gratitude to Judith and to Rabbis Sally, and Regina and to my friend Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi, ordained in 1974.)   What a great season of celebration. After the wilderness of generations, we have arrived. We thank the Source of Life for enabling us to reach this moment!

 

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