SAN FRANCISCO (j. weekly) — Seated cross-legged in the sunny backyard of her north Oakland home, wearing loose, tie-dyed pants, beads around her neck, her hair in tousled braids and sipping kombucha tea — her drum is tucked away for now — Taya Shere brings a few stereotypes to mind: Hippie. Earth mother. Hebrew priestess.
Hebrew priestess? It might not be a familiar archetype, but it is an absolutely accurate term, says Shere. No one bestowed this title upon her at birth; she grew up in Washington, D.C., where she attended a Reform synagogue with her family and genuinely liked going to services. She even relished the study that led up to her bat mitzvah.
But at 16 or 17, something changed. “From that age on, up through college, I was really beginning to question the patriarchy and the hierarchies that I saw in the Jewish tradition,” says Shere, 37, who recently moved to Oakland from the D.C. area. She says she felt a true spiritual hunger and found herself “wrestling deeply with finding God … I just couldn’t find what I was looking for in Judaism.”
After spending several years studying religious folklore and women’s roles in spiritual movements around the world, Shere gradually returned to Judaism when she realized that much of what she was looking for actually was present in Jewish tradition — it had just been “buried.” Today, she’s one of a couple of women at the center of a program that helps Jewish women to reclaim the “feminine divine” and reconnect to their spiritual lives. In doing so, Shere arguably has gone outside established norms of Jewish expression as it has developed over 2,000 years, immersing herself in ancient stories about Jewish women to create something that is very new — or based on something very old, depending on one’s point of view.
Kohenet, the Hebrew Priestess Institute, trains women to become Jewish ritual leaders by tapping into earth-based spiritual practices that they believe harken back to pre-rabbinic Judaism; a time when, according to Kohenet’s founders, women took on many more (and much more powerful) spiritual leadership roles than most Jewish children ever hear about in Sunday school today.
The Kohenet Institute — “kohenet” is a feminine variation on “kohen,” or priest — certainly isn’t the only feminist response to traditional Jewish practice that has emerged in recent years. Like Rosh Hodesh (new moon) practices and Jewish earth-based groups, such as Berkeley’s Wilderness Torah, it comes out of a longing for spiritual rituals that match the natural rhythms of the planet, the seasons and the human (in this case female) body.
The word “priestess” hasn’t exactly been embraced by mainstream Judaism. For starters, it’s not easy to explain; when asked for a definition, many women involved with Kohenet say they prefer it as a verb. And like other recent innovations in Judaism, it has been criticized as pagan or, worse, anti-Jewish.
In a 2010 story for the online magazine Tablet, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school, said, “I don’t see how Kohenet, to judge from its website, is compatible with Jewish belief and practice,” noting that Judaism has always sought to move people away from “paganism, magic, and the worship of nature.”
But Kohenet women say that by exploring a feminist perspective, they’re actually drawing some women back, or deeper, into Judaism — not turning them away from it, or even necessarily inventing something new. And criticism aside, the program appears to have struck a chord. Women representing a range of spiritual backgrounds and ages, from their 20s to their 70s, quickly expressed interest when the program got up and running in early 2006.
About 50 women have completed the two-year course of study and been ordained as priestesses, and another two dozen or so are in training. The school is based at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, but women come from all over to attend retreats. About 10 Kohenet women currently live in the Bay Area; unsurprisingly, plans are in the works to establish a West Coast base. On Aug. 15, the initial “Kohenet West” programming will be a ritual workshop, held at Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev and open to the public, called “The Sacred Journey of the Hebrew Priestess.”
The bulk of learning, however, happens during a weeklong retreat held twice a year at the Isabella Freedman Center. Using the HaKohanot siddur — a prayerbook that offers traditional liturgy, feminine-gendered versions of prayers, poetry and guided meditations — participants learn about the 13 netivot (Hebrew for “paths” or “ways of being”) that female spiritual leaders or priestesses can take: Seeker, Shrinekeeper, Mother, Wise Woman. These reflect, according to Kohenet’s mission statement, different types of women’s spiritual roles over the course of centuries: from “biblical prophetess-priestesses to Talmudic healers and magicians to kabbalistic dream interpreters to modern feminist ritualists.”
Priestesses in training also learn leadership skills and tools for creating rituals, depending on individual interests. One student’s recent work focused on prayers and text that could support women in recovery from substance abuse. Another priestess in training is focused on rituals for the LGBT community. Music, in the form of dance, drumming and chanting, is integral to almost everything they do.
Between retreats, women in training and alumni stay in touch via phone conferences and an online community — something Kohenet women use nearly every day to reach out to each other with questions or ideas, says Shere.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, 43, an author and the director of spiritual education at New York’s Academy for Jewish Religion, a nondenominational rabbinical and cantorial school, co-founded Kohenet with Shere. Hammer says critiques of the Jewish tradition from Jewish feminists such as Alicia Ostriker are part of what “propelled” her into rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Once there, her interest in women’s roles in Jewish text only grew.
“I was delving into midrash, and I became really interested in the biblical figures of Miriam and Devorah,” says Hammer. “And I started looking at women who were prophetesses and judges, and realizing that they were practicing spiritual leadership in a way that was actually common for women in the Middle East … much of the Torah presents things as ‘Men are the leaders, and these women are exceptions,’ but it’s not true.”
Hammer began to focus on the idea of a “model of spiritual leadership that would incorporate a history of Jewish women — not just adopting the rabbinic model that had been handed to me, which is a wonderful model,” she says, “but it’s also been developed and maintained by men, and it’s a model that’s beginning to shift. I see this as a time for exploration: Where else can we find models of spiritual leadership in the community?”
Shere allows that asking such questions has “ruffled some feathers.” Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean of the seminary at Yeshiva University, told a Tablet reporter that earth-based or pagan Jews were “perverts” and that “pagan worship by those of Jewish birth” is what “destroyed our temples” and sent Jews into exile.
And yet, those involved in Kohenet — most of whom do not identify themselves as pagan — say they get something out of the program that they never experienced with traditional Judaism.
For Ariel Vegosen, 33, Kohenet has meant, among other things, a counter to the gender-restricted Judaism of her youth. Growing up on Long Island, the suburbs of New York City, she attended a Conservative synagogue that did not allow women on the bimah.
“To this day, I have not read from the Torah, which is really odd and painful that I didn’t get to do that as a young person,” she says. “But I didn’t really understand that until I was an adult.”
Vegosen stayed engaged with Judaism as a teen, joining United Synagogue Youth. As a young adult she expressed her Judaism mainly through social activism, she says, founding a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group at the University of Maryland. She also holds a certificate in experiential education from American Jewish University, the Conservative movement’s West Coast institution of higher learning.
“Judaism has been a huge part of my life,” she says.
Yet something was missing. While on a retreat at the Freedman Center with the LGBT organization Nehirim, Vegosen found herself drawn to the Kohenet women, who happened to be there on a retreat at the same time. Something just clicked.
“I don’t know of any other program that’s inspiring women to see the full potential of our religion,” she says. “I feel like a lot of the time in our tradition, women are not honored as leaders. Obviously we have a lot of great women leaders; [Rabbi] Lynn Gottlieb is one of my mentors. But in some ways the Jewish community is still dominated by the patriarchy and lacking in women’s leadership … so I’m excited to be trained to step into that role [of priestess].”
Vegosen says she’s also been inspired by Kohenet’s focus on exploring gendered language around God, and the focus on the Shechinah (the feminine aspects or version of God). “We talk a lot about Hebrew language and Aramaic, and it’s almost always the case that a word can have multiple meanings, has multiple stories in it,” she says, “which leads to a conversation about who’s telling the story, whose voice is this in.’ ”
“I’m seeing more and more people in the Jewish community who are interested in the divine feminine,” she adds. “And I think Kohenet can serve a role in even just getting people to go, ‘Oh, wow, all the prayers [in traditional Hebrew text] are in the masculine. You’re constantly praying to a masculine God.’ ”
One of her long-term dreams for Kohenet’s work, she says, is for the feminine versions of prayers to become more normalized to the point that they are taught alongside the masculine versions in mainstream Jewish educational settings.
Naomi Seidman, Koret professor of Jewish culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, has written extensively on feminist Jewish topics. She says she hadn’t heard of Kohenet but found the movement “interesting.”
“One of the reasons it’s odd to me is that the male priest, even, is obsolete — it basically disappeared with the destruction of the Second Temple,” she says. “So it’s not just inserting women into a male kind of job, it’s a resurrection of something that’s not culturally present.”
Seidman noted that the concept of a priestess, however, is “not without historical precedent.”
“The last remnant of temple sacrifice that looks anything like temple sacrifice is the burning of a ritual piece of challah, and since it was generally women that made challah, they did in a way become the last priestesses. The text does come close to saying that,” she says.
“It seems like [Kohenet women] are borrowing the homosocial aspects of being priests — when these men were together, it seems likely they were mostly barbecuing, doing a little singing … doing guy things,” she adds with a laugh. “This seems like a way of tapping into the power of same-sex community.”
For San Francisco resident Rae Abileah, 30 — known by some in the Bay Area for her work with the anti-war group Code Pink (she was on staff until last year) and with Jewish Voice for Peace — one of the most meaningful elements of Kohenet has been considering life milestones not generally recognized in mainstream Judaism. When Abileah left her job at Code Pink in 2012, Vegosen performed a ceremony for Abileah and her close friends on a beach in the East Bay.
“I wanted to have some kind of gathering, a ritual to mark that significant part of my life coming to an end,” she says. “And I love that Kohenet is creating new rituals for life changes that don’t exist already in our tradition. Yes, we have language for birth, death, weddings, coming of age. But what about when you’re transitioning out of a relationship, a divorce, an abortion … or even a housewarming? How do we create rituals around these things in a feminist, earth-connected way?”
Abileah points to the various ways that ordained priestesses have used their leadership skills when they return to their communities: Many bring new rituals to their synagogues at home. One woman who lives in Philadelphia recently ran for judge, and said the skills she gained in Kohenet helped guide her political campaign. Another woman is now in rabbinical school and recently used the Kohenet prayerbook to lead davening at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Others perform marriage ceremonies and traditional lifecycle rituals. Abileah says her work at Kohenet has, among other things, improved her confidence as an organizer, the work she’s always done.
“I want to be able to bring these teachings into unusual spaces, whether I’m at my family dinner table or a corporate tech conference,” she says. “If you want a more peaceful, harmonious society , put women at the leadership table and see how things shift in dramatic ways. Kohenet is an integral part of that.”
Kohenet women also say becoming a priestess makes sense for some women who, for one reason or another, don’t want to attend rabbinical school. For one, the time and financial commitment necessary to become a rabbi prevent many people from pursuing that path. Though the Kohenet application process is “competitive,” says Abileah, it doesn’t require that a woman entirely restructure her life the way rabbinical school might.
“Anytime you’re broadening leadership, connecting more people — that value is something I love about Judaism anyway,” she says. “You see it in the fact that the Passover seder is supposed to be layperson-led: you don’t need someone else to come in and do it for you.”
While the mainstream Jewish world might not quite know what to do with priestesses just yet, Hammer and Shere say they’ve also received support from a range of Jewish communities. In August, Kohenet women will be presenting at a leadership retreat for members of Wilderness Torah, whose focus on eco-Judaism overlaps with Kohenet’s earth-based vision.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, says he has “tremendous respect” for the organization’s directors.
“I met Taya at a gathering of Jewish Renewal folk on the East Coast and saw the amazing creativity and dynamism that Kohenet was managing to elicit both from people who had previously been exposed to feminist consciousness, and from others who might have been previously resistant to it,” he says. “So I thought I’d read their prayerbook. And I found that many of their interpretations were spiritually deep and opened up a path to God that I think may appeal to those who have rejected traditional conceptions of God.
“Judaism does need more of the original feminine energy that, in my view, was integral to Judaism in its earlier stages,” says Lerner, who sees Kohenet as among a number of new approaches to Judaism poised to become a “powerful alternative to synagogue life.”
Regardless of the academic or rabbinical viewpoint, those involved with Kohenet say it’s clear there is a growing hunger for feminist spiritual leadership in the Jewish community — a yearning Kohenet is helping to satisfy.
“I think if people in their 20s and 30s are tapped out of [synagogue membership] and traditional Judaism, it’s because it felt like a chore, something their parents made them do,” says Abileah. “And if we don’t change, we die. That’s the law of the universe, and it’s also super relevant for Judaism right now. It’s time to rethink some of the old ways that aren’t working for the next generation.”