Israel’s First Female Rabbi Asks ‘why Not?’ Instead of ‘why?’

Naamah Kelman seemed destined to marry a rabbi, not become one.

Although she grew up in a family of rabbis, Kelman thought until recently that becoming a rabbi in Israel was not a career option for her.

But on July 23, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, Naamah Kelman became Rabbi Naamah Kelman, making her the first female rabbi to be ordained in Israel.

“I’m fulfilling a professional and personal dream,” she said. “It’s overwhelmingly fulfilling — and also tiring.”

Fulfilling the dream did not come easily for the 37-year-old New York native. Kelman, who attended an Orthodox Jewish high school, did not grow up in an environment that encouraged women to become rabbis.

Her father, the late Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Conservative branch’s Rabbinical Assembly for 38 years, steered his daughter toward Jewish education. But he taught her that the closest she would ever get to becoming a rabbi was marrying one.

Kelman said she was first introduced to Jewish feminism as a freshman at Northwestern University. “I was very much influenced by my Hillel rabbi,” said Kelman, who is now the mother of three children.

The rabbi encouraged me to go to the first Jewish Feminist Conference in 1973, gave me my first aliyah (call to the Torah), and persuaded me to lead services,” she said.

CONSERVATIVES TURNED HER DOWN

But despite her college activism, Kelman had no plans to become a rabbi when she moved to Israel in the late 1970s. She said she first seriously considered the idea in 1985, after Amy Eilberg became the first Conservative female rabbi in America.

Kelman, who was then working at a community center in Jerusalem, decided to apply to both the Conservative and the Reform rabbinical programs in Israel in 1986. But the Conservative movement in Israel had decided not to ordain women (and still does not). Kelman was accepted at HUC in Jerusalem.

“I was very disappointed when I was rejected by the Israeli Conservative movement,” Kelman said. “But I felt that the important battle is to change Israeli society’s view, not fight my own institution.”

So Kelman affiliated herself with the Reform movement. Kelman did not consider the switch a major break from tradition, however.

“It was not a big deal,” Kelman said. “The Israeli Reform movement is different than the one in the United States. Services are in Hebrew, there are more classical Jewish texts, and people keep kosher.”

Kelman was not the first in her family to switch from Conservative to Reform. In 1985, her brother, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, founded Kol Haneshama, a “Neo-Hasidic” Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. Membership has since grown to 300 families, consisting mostly of American olim.

Kelman is now a member of her brother’s synagogue. For now, she will continue her fulltime work as a teacher and educational adviser at the North American Federation of Temple Youth in Israel, a Reform youth group. But Kelman hopes some day to have a pulpit of her own.

“Right now it is not practical,” she said. “It will take Israeli society some time to adjust to a woman leading services.”

Indeed, Kelman has already received negative feedback from Orthodox Israelis. Less than a week after Kelman was ordained, a letter to the editor objecting to female rabbis appeared in Kol Ha-Ir, a weekly paper in Jerusalem.

In addition, a talk show host on a religious radio station emphasized that Kelman was a “rabbi” rather than a “rav,” which Kelman said implied that her ordination was not legitimate.

On the other hand, Kelman said she has received much positive feedback from Israelis who are not Orthodox. “More and more they are accepting the Israeli Progressive Movement and its decision to ordain women rabbis,” she said. “There is a changing political environment, and their acceptance is definitely related to the switch in the wind.”

Indeed, the Conservative movement in Israel, which refused to accept Kelman in its rabbinical program seven years ago, will vote on the issue of ordaining women next month.

“There is a consensus to ordain women now,” said Amy Lederhendler, chairperson of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Israeli Conservative Movement.

In the meantime, Kelman said that she and the other graduating female rabbis — a second woman, Maya Leibowic, will be ordained at HUC next month — will try to make things easier for women who are considering entering the rabbinate in Israel.

“More and more woman are asking ‘why not?’ instead of ‘why?’ when they think about becoming a rabbi,” she said. “It just goes to show that if you persevere, you succeed.”

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