The Essence of Female Jewish Leadership

A reflection on what it took to bring women into the rabbinate, and what it takes to keep them there.

Forty years ago this past week, Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained as a Reform rabbi, making her the first woman rabbi to be ordained after the Holocaust. It was an historic time and in the years that followed, the Conservative movement continued ordaining women. Of late, Modern Orthodoxy has, too, given women new leadership roles. As we marked this watershed moment, there was much discussion about the effect and impact of women’s leadership in Judaism and Jewish community.

I have been taking part in the conversation by participating in “Stories from the Fringe: Women Rabbis Revealed”, a play and discussion based on over 100 interviews of female rabbis across the world and across denominational lines. Throughout the United States there have been numerous activities and programs like this to recognize the anniversary of women in the rabbinate and to reflect on the impact of this shift in leadership and authority.

The fight for the ordination of women as rabbis can teach us something about what it means to be a Jewish leader, and could even give the Israeli government an insight regarding its struggle to address the changing face of religious Jewish leadership, in light of its recent decision to recognize – albeit limitedly – non-Orthodox rabbis.

The qualities required to gain access to the highest levels of Torah learning, academic scholarship, practical Jewish wisdom and ordination itself are telling and powerful. They give us a sense of what the ideal Jewish religious leader might look like:

First of all, the women who dreamed of being rabbis when no one in the world was, remind us of the need for leadership to be abundantly creative and brave – it required those women and their allies imagine a world not yet born. The community needed the creativity and bravery to see rabbis who looked, sounded and appeared altogether different than generations past. And those who supported them needed the courage to believe and act to manifest a world only imagined.

Second, these pioneers - the women rabbis and their communities - had conviction and strength. They believed that they, too, deserved the right to study, prepare and learn how to be leaders. They made it happen by pushing the boundaries of denominations, institutions and long held assumptions in order to ensure access and equality. Without tremendous strength and conviction in their cause no women would have been conferred with the title of rabbi.

Third, these women needed abounding commitment. They faced personal and professional challenges of acceptance when so many institutions would not hire them - even after they had become rabbis. Women rabbis continue to be marginalized by so many, yet we are committed to the cause of serving God, the Jewish people and the world at large. Women rabbis sometimes preserve taking jobs with less prestige and fewer dollars simply to serve the people and teach Torah. In doing so, they exhibit tremendous fortitude, commitment to being a Jewish leader and taking on the responsibility of the growth of Judaism.

Finally, it took a devotion to learning and serving. Their unbelievable commitment to Judaism and thirst for the necessary knowledge to gain access to Jewish texts, ritual, study, people, community and Jewish wisdom, is what began their journey to the rabbinate. They did not see barriers nor closed doors, but a cracked window in which they could climb through so that they could learn and study to be leaders, to garner the respect needed to gain authority. By committing themselves to this path they showed unbelievable love of Torah, Jewish people and service to God.

With all of these qualities: creativity and bravery, conviction and strength, commitment and a thirst for Torah learning and of course the deep desire to practice its rituals with full equality, these women remind us what true leadership is all about. In so doing we gained a cadre of rabbis (approximately 1,000 worldwide today) who 50 years ago could not have stood on the pulpit, at lifecycle events or in boardrooms with the title rabbi. These women exhibit for each of us, the Israeli government and Jewish communities all over the world, the true characteristics of leadership. Reminding us that sex and gender, denomination and affiliation do not determine who is a true leader and authority for the people Israel.

Instead, it should be the quality of someone’s character, their convictions and passion for the Jewish people and community, their sense of responsibility and service, their love of Torah and its wisdom, and their bravery in imagining a world better than the one they were born into, that should determine who is a leader.

Elianna Yolkut is a Conservative Rabbi teaching Torah and celebrating Judaism in New York City. You can reach her at