This Day in Jewish History First Female Conservative Rabbi Is Ordained in New York

When Eilberg received ordination it was a major news story not just among Jews, but nationally.

David Green
David B. Green
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Jewish Theological Seminary of American building in Manhattan.
Jewish Theological Seminary of American building in Manhattan.Credit: Wikipedia
David Green
David B. Green

On May 12, 1985, Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi when she graduated from the rabbinical school of New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

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Eilberg was born in Philadelphia on October 12, 1954. Her parents were the former Gladys Greenberg, a social worker, and Joshua Eilberg, a lawyer who entered politics around the time of his daughter’s birth. Joshua Eilberg eventually served five terms as a U.S. representative from Philadelphia. (He was active in the campaign on behalf of Soviet Jews, and made visas available for them to immigrate to the United States, but his political career ended in 1978 in disgrace, as he pleaded guilty to conflict-of-interest charges involving money he accepted for helping a Philadelphia hospital win a federal grant.)

The Eilberg family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, and Amy was involved in United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah, where she worked as a counselor. Following a summer at Ramah, she persuaded her family to start keeping a kosher home.

Eilberg attended Brandeis University, graduating in 1976 with a degree in Near Eastern studies, having become increasingly involved in Jewish life.

By 1976, both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in America had ordained female rabbis – Sally Priesand graduated from Hebrew Union College in 1972, and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College four years later. In the Conservative movement of the mid-1970s, however, as Eilberg wrote in the Forward in 2010, “hardly anyone was talking about the ordination of women, certainly not in public. Those of us women who davened in tallit and tefillin did so in the privacy of our own rooms.”

Nonetheless, the Hillel director at Brandeis, Rabbi Al Axelrad, had planted in Eilberg the idea of becoming a rabbi. And when she began studying for a master’s degree in Talmud at JTS in the fall of 1976, it was partly with the hope the Conservative seminary would soon accept women. Although the seminary began a discussion of the subject in 1977, it did not move to admit women until 1984, after the death of Prof. Saul Lieberman, who was adamantly opposed on halakhic grounds.

Lieberman died in March 1984; the following September, 19 women, including Eilberg – who in the interim had received an additional master’s, in social work, at Smith College — entered the rabbinical school. Usually the JTS course of studies takes five years to complete, but Eilberg’s background in Jewish studies allowed her to graduate the following spring.

At the time, the Conservative movement was the largest Jewish denomination in the United States (it was later surpassed by the Reform), and when Eilberg received ordination it was a major news story not just among Jews, but nationally.

Her first job following ordination was as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. She then served as assistant rabbi at a large Philadelphia-area synagogue, Har Zion Temple. Since 1989, however, Eilberg has had non-pulpit duties: She was co-founder of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, and now is involved in peace studies and interfaith work in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area, where she is a consultant at the Jay Philips Center for Interfaith Learning. Earlier this year she published a book on the subject, “From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.”

Twitter: @davidbeegreen



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