A small step for a woman, a giant leap for Judaism

Lee Chottiner

Human Resources
Lee Chottiner

At the risk of sounding as though I’m crowing, something that I actually called for in print is going to happen.
(Yes, I’m human; I have flaws. Don’t judge me too harshly.)
Seriously, last year around this time, I wrote a column about Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s search for a new president, someone to succeed Rabbi Aaron Panken, a visionary leader who had recently died in a plane crash in New York’s Hudson Valley.
Up to that point, the president of HUC-JIR had always been a rabbi, the chief administrator of the seminary/graduate school, but also its spiritual leader who performed smicha – the traditional laying on of hands and passing of tradition – at all ordinations for the movement’s newest rabbis.
The president also had always been a man. Put a pin in that.
Smicha is a deeply personal moment. Although, the soon-to-be rabbi stands on the bima in a crowded synagogue, the ark open, with hundreds of eyes watching as the president rests his hands upon her shoulders, the words he whispers are meant only for her. I watched my wife go through this ceremony 13 years ago in Cincinnati. I have never asked her what the then-president of the seminary, Rabbi David Ellenson, said to her. And I never will.
That’s the way it’s always been … until this year.
The HUC-JIR president had always been a man. In my column, I proposed that it was time for the oldest rabbinical school in America, and the training ground for most Reform rabbis and cantors, to hire a woman as its next president.
Well … they didn’t. But a woman will still do the ordaining this year.
Last year, HUC-JIR announced the hiring of Andrew Rehfeld, a political scientist and Jewish communal leader from St. Louis, to be its 13th president. Rehfeld, previously a tenured professor at Washington University and president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, is a proven administrator and fundraiser – two skill sets the school needs.
But he’s not a rabbi.
So someone else must ordain the candidates, and that someone will, indeed, be a woman.
Rabbi Andrea Weiss will perform smicha at all four campuses this year (Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem). She has already performed the ceremony in LA and New York.
“She is the ‘ordaining’ authority now,” said Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati.
A giant in the Reform movement, Weiss is not only a noted professor of Bible at HUC-JIR’s New York campus, she was the associate editor of The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, a chumash with comments, poetry and essays that look at the Pentateuch from a female perspective. Published in 2007, it has become a standard text in many Reform congregations.
When I wrote my column last year, I asked Louisville’s women rabbis who they would like to see considered for president. Not surprisingly, one of the names dropped was Andrea Weiss.
In a local twist, among the first rabbinic candidates she will ordain is a Louisville native, David Bloom. He will be ordained at the June 1 ceremony in Cincinnati’s historic Plum Street Temple. (See story, page 20.)
While she will not be the first woman to perform smicha – the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania and the nondenominational Hebrew College in Massachusetts both have female presidents – what HUC-JIR has done is is still historic. It is the largest of the Jewish religious movements, its rabbis working on every continent except perhaps Antarctica.
Since the movement ordained its first woman – Sally Priesand in 1972 – hundreds of women have entered the Reform rabbinate. In recent years, the numbers of women receiving smicha have exceeded the men in some classes.
And at a time when women’s rights are under fire – witness the litany of anti-abortion laws being passed in state houses across the country and the fight for egalitarian worship at the Western Wall in Jerusalem – the Reform movement needs to elevate more women religious leaders. Their moral voices will serve as a reminder that half the world’s population is still not treated equally.
So if you happen to be in Cincinnati on June 1 and make it to the Plum Street Temple, you will witness a bit of history. It may not be hottest ticket in town, but it certainly will be the most significant.

(Lee Chottiner is editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)

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