For 1st Native Israeli Woman Rabbi, Quest for Acceptance is Not So Easy

A Jerusalem mother of four made history Wednesday, when she became the first Israeli-born woman to receive rabbinical ordination.

Maya Lebovich’s ordination at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College is “a landmark,” said Michael Klein, dean of HUC’s Israeli campus.

“While the Reform movement in the U.S. has ordained more than 200 woman during the past 20 years, Israeli women have been fighting a great struggle for equality,” he said.

This is “a unique opportunity to change the world of the rabbinate by bringing a new perspective, a new angle of vision,” said Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president of HUC, which is based in Cincinnati.

Lebovich, 46, admits that the road to the rabbinate has not been easy.

To begin with, the Orthodox rabbinic establishment in Israel takes a dim view of women who want to assume religious leadership positions.

“Four years ago, I applied for a position on the Jerusalem Religious Council,” Lebovich said in an interview. “The council flatly refuses to even consider women as members, and the case is now in court.”

But her status as a rabbi is also complicated by the fact that she is receiving smicha from the Reform movement. According to Israel’s rabbinical establishment, the Reform movement is “muktsah,” or outside of mainstream Judaism, Lebovich explained.

As a result, Reform rabbis are not able to perform many of the functions that Orthodox rabbis can, such as officiating at marriages.

A teacher by profession, Lebovich was brought up in a completely secular household in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.

“My parents were Holocaust survivors and turned their backs on Judaism,” she said. “They lost all their family, and below the surface there was a lot of anger about what Judaism symbolized.”

‘THEY WANTED TO SHIELD US’

Her parents, she said, “were doing what many people of their generation did. They wanted to shield us from bad memories, from being ashamed to be Jewish. They thought, wrongly, that being Israeli was enough.

“It isn’t,” she said. “I grew up with the need to fill an emotional and historical gap.”

Even today, she said, “people often think that if you live in Israel you internalize being Jewish. That’s not true. In order to lead a Jewish life you have to consciously make your life Jewish, through study, through mitzvot.

“But first and foremost, all Jewish children need a good Jewish education,” she said. “You can’t expect an 18-year-old to feel a natural love of country and religion if no one has prepared him to do so.”

Lebovich is critical of Israel’s secular school system, where, she said, “children learn Judaism from a historical and archeological point of view, but not from the standpoint of faith or belief.”

She hopes that the hoopla surrounding her ordination will show the Israeli public that the Reform movement “isn’t a foreign entry. It isn’t just an import brought to Israel by American immigrants. It’s an Israeli movement with Israeli rabbis and values.”

Lebovich pointed out that there are sometimes differences between the American and Israeli brands of Reform Judaism. One example, she said, is in their approaches to intermarriage.

“While American Reform rabbis often perform mixed marriages, we have taken a stand here in Israel not to perform mixed marriages,” she said.

Despite some differences, “there is so much the two branches of Reform give each other,” she said.

MANY ORTHODOX WOMEN OPEN-MINDED

Asked whether Israel is ready for a sabra woman rabbi, Lebovich shrugged her shoulders.

“That depends,” she said. “Over the past few years, an increasing number of women are calling for changes in halachah (traditional Jewish law) that will include women in Jewish study. Many women’s prayer groups have sprung up, something we didn’t have 20 years ago.

“In my encounters with Orthodox women, many have told me that they accept the notion that a woman might want to be a rabbi, or at least to participate more fully in prayer and ritual. Some are very open-minded to the concept, although they themselves maintain a traditional role.”

Though she is only the second woman to receive rabbinic ordination in Israel — the first was American-born Naamah Kelman — Lebovich is hopeful that more women will follow.

“There is an entire generation of young men and women who are ready for a more active part in Jewish life, but they will meet resistance from the older generation,” she said.

As an example, she recalled a family that attended her son’s bar mitzvah.

“The father, a neighbor of ours, was rather shocked when he saw me standing on the bimah with my son, wearing a tallit and carrying the Torah,” she related. “He told me he was uncomfortable with it all, but that the food was delicious.

“Five minutes later,” she said, “his 18-year-old daughter came up to me and said, ‘The best part of the bar mitzvah was when you stood on the bimah and held the Torah.’

“I’d say that describes Israeli society in a nutshell.”

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