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Conservative women rabbis reflect, rejoice

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NEW YORK, Jan. 30 (JTA) – Streaming down the hallway from the Jewish Theological Seminary cafeteria Sunday night came an unusual sound: some 100 female voices, undisturbed by tenor or bass, joyously singing the blessing after meals.

Not only did all the voices belong to women, but almost all belonged to rabbis or rabbinical students.

It was a significant moment in a Conservative movement where women comprise less than 10 percent of the rabbinical pool, and where the decision to ordain women 16 years ago came only after long and divisive debate.

Gathered from around the United States and Israel, the rabbis were celebrating their growing numbers – now more than 120 – and the influence they believe they are having on the movement.

“You have to know that your presence has transformed the Jewish world,” Francine Klagsbrun said in a keynote address. Klagsbrun, a writer, was one of the members of the 1985 commission that recommended female ordination.

The two-day conference, which was for women only and was mostly closed to the press, combined study of Jewish texts, workshops on “nurturing ourselves” as individuals and spiritual leaders, and lively dancing to the music of Mikveh, a female klezmer band.

In the hallways, participants talked of their victories and ongoing challenges and swapped news about their children.

One of the highest remaining barriers they face is the Conservative movement’s refusal to recognize women as witnesses in marriage, conversion or divorce.

That issue, which was not on the conference agenda but was discussed in the halls, is currently under discussion by the movement’s law committee. It appears to be widely flouted by women rabbis.

Several women at the conference said they already serve as witnesses, which does not pose a problem for their communities.

Others said they hope the law committee will rule in their favor.

“I only give positive quotes, but as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and someone serving in a synagogue, I look forward to the time when all Conservative institutions recognize women’s testimony as being credible and equal to that of our male counterparts,” said Rabbi Andrea Merow of Temple Sholom in Philadelphia.

The witness question was one of several raised informally in signs posted on a pillar in the lobby, with answers scrawled in crayon.

Most respondents wrote that they do serve as witnesses but make sure to inform their congregants of the “implications” – the fact that some people may not recognize a ceremony with female witnesses as valid.

Among the other questions on the pillar: “Does your spouse play a Rebbetzin” – using the word for a rabbi’s wife – “role in your professional life?” (answers ranged from “Heck no,” to “They sent me home so he could build the sukkah”); “What stereotypes have you encountered?” (“Young, cute, sexy;” “The best part of having you for a rabbi is I get to kiss you”); “Why/why not do you wear a yarmulke and tefillin?”

The witness issue is one of many challenges the rabbis face. Many congregations remain apprehensive about hiring women rabbis, and balancing a perpetually on-call career with family life is difficult.

Rabbi Avis Miller, of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington D.C., said women rabbis may ultimately persuade synagogues to treat them like doctors who have practices.

Instead of expecting each rabbi to be available around the clock, she said, synagogues with more than one rabbi may simply ensure that one rabbi is on call at any time, freeing others to spend time with their families.

“When that happens, it will be because both men and women want this, but it will be at the impetus of women,” Miller said.

Those rabbis around long enough to remember the last conference commemorating Conservative women rabbis – in 1995 – said the mood has changed markedly in just six years.

“I can’t believe how far we’ve come since then,” said Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, of Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation in suburban Chicago.

At that 10th anniversary of female ordination, Newman Kamin said, the debate over whether or not to ordain women was revisited and “you had speakers who spoke out against the ordination of women.”

“Six years later we have no one to apologize to, no one’s poor sport story we have to listen to,” Newman Kamin said. “This is a real celebration. This is wonderful.”

Indeed, the mood of the conference was overwhelmingly festive.

At one point in Sunday night’s dancing, the group lifted two JTS professors – Anne Lapidus Lerner and Judith Hauptman – on chairs, and one young rabbi could be heard whispering to a friend, “those are the two women who should have been rabbis!”

Lerner and Hauptman, who launched their careers in academia long before the movement began ordaining women, are widely viewed as mentors for women rabbinical students at JTS.

Heather Altman, who was ordained in 2000 and is assistant rabbi of Bet Torah in Mount Kisco, N.Y., described the conference as “incredible.”

“When I walked in this morning it was a powerful feeling of being in a room of women rabbis,” Altman said. “One of the things that shocked me when I first came here as a student was what a male space the seminary is.”

While this group has penetrated the largely male rabbinate, the fact that the conference coincided with the Super Bowl indicates that there remains at least one male-dominated sphere these participants will not venture into any time soon.

That did not go unnoticed.

“When there’s a national women’s football league, we promise not to have our conference at the same time,” said Rabbi Francine Roston, one of the conference organizers, as she introduced the keynote speaker.

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