A Place by the Holy Ark

All three came from secular backgrounds, were magnetized by Judaism and fought prejudice to become congregational rabbis. But maneuvering endlessly between motherhood and work on Sabbaths and holidays, coupled with frustration over inequality, is taking its toll

In the decade since the ordination of Na'ama Kelman, the first woman rabbi in Israel, another 15 women rabbis from the Reform and Conservative Movements in Israel have joined her and her fellow-trailblazers, Kinneret Shiryon and Einat Ramon, who were ordained abroad back in the 1980s.

"I saw myself as a leader," says Shiryon, who was appointed chair of the Israeli Council of Progressive Rabbis, the professional organization of Reform rabbis working and living in Israel, about a year ago. Since the age of 15, a burning passion drove Shiryon, who grew up in the warm bosom of the Conservative Movement in the U.S., to the rabbinate. When she grew up and discovered that her own movement did not permit her to be ordained, she moved to the Reform Movement.

In contrast to Shiryon, most of the Israeli-born women rabbis did not come to the field as young women; sometimes they are the mothers of grown children who "reinvented" themselves, and in so doing broke down barriers in the public mind and even within their movement.

Today, the women of the founding generation can look back with a sense of achievement. Equality in numbers prevails at the Conservative Movement's Shechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, with 12 women and 13 men enrolled in the course of studies for rabbinic ordination. The Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion may even be showing a trend toward a female majority, with 19 women and 18 men in its rabbinic program.

Most of the young women in today's rabbinic programs have grown up with the concept of a woman rabbi and come to their studies with a clear understanding of what a woman rabbi is. Will their road be easier? Conservative Rabbi Einat Ramon is not so sure. "Being a woman rabbi may not be unusual enough any more to warrant an invitation to appear on a TV talk show, but most Israelis still raise an eyebrow when they come into contact with the phenomenon," she says. Among the Israelis who opt for a Reform rabbi to perform their wedding ceremony (an act that still has no legal standing in Israel today), she adds, those inviting a female rabbi to do so are considered especially bold.

A struggle is still going on within the movement as well, says Ramon. "To be a woman congregational rabbi is acceptable," she explains, "but to allow a woman to head the movement, unless it is a volunteer position like the chair of the rabbinic council, that's something else again."

Ramon describes the hurdles she encountered on her way to the position she now holds. "I thought that the process would begin and end agreeably, but I was wrong. About half of our congregations are not egalitarian."

Raz: Spirituality and Woodstock

In Mira Raz's living room is a framed photograph of Peter Townsend of The Who, on stage at Woodstock, holding aloft a guitar as if threatening to break it over the heads of the audience. It once adorned the wall of her room as a teenager; now it hangs on the wall near a bookcase heavily laden with sacred tomes in Raz's modest apartment in old North Tel Aviv. What is so alluring about a yellowing photo that seems so far from Raz's spiritual world today?

"The ecstasy," she explains simply. Something of that power, she says, is what she feels when she stands before her congregation during services.

In a Jewish movement that has removed all mention of the resurrection of the dead from its prayer book, 50-year-old Raz, who believes in reincarnation, definitely stands out. She is known in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (or IMPJ, the name of the Israeli Reform Movement) as the rabbi of the New Age for a good reason: A chirologist (a practitioner who analyses various aspects of the hand, including palm-reading) changed her life when he read her destiny in her palm, but it took many more years until she got up the courage to study for the rabbinate.

Prayer in the Netanya Congregation on one Friday evening this summer was reminiscent of a sing-along in a kibbutz dining room. The prayer hall in the Women's League Center in the city echoed sweetly with chanting by a Russian woman cantor wrapped in a prayer shawl, a kippah (skullcap) on her head, accompanied by piano. The congregation was composed mostly of senior citizens from English-speaking countries, together with immigrants from Russia, three or four Israelis in their 30s and 40s, (most Reform congregations in the country have more native-born Israelis) and two Thai caregivers who had come with their elderly patients and knew the liturgy well.

Raz's ageless face openly shines with enthusiasm. She is wearing a soft pink-and-red pants suit, and a kippah in a matching old-rose hue - her favorite. When she reads the prayers aloud, she sounds like a Bible teacher. That's exactly what she was, in fact, for 11 years. "It was frustrating to teach without fatih the greatest theological book ever written," she reveals.

Raz belongs to an ever-growing group of women rabbis who were once ordinary secular women. For her, the change was not a sharp transition. Even as a young girl she longed for spirituality. At age 16 she asked her parents to buy her a set of Bible commentaries, which she still has. "I was an avid reader, and I knew there was enormous spirituality in the midrashim [rabbinic commentaries], and in the Zohar [a seminal work on Jewish mysticism, or kabbala]." Raz has just published a book of her own, "The Way of Torah to Love" (Shufra Publishing Company).

When she went to synagogue, it bothered her to sit in the women's section. "It wasn't for me. I need to sit near the holy ark." Raz took her place by the ark only after her children were grown. About two years ago her oldest daughter, Renana Raz, (a dancer and a member of the cast of the religious soap opera "The Courtyard," broadcast on Tchelet, the religious cable channel), staged a dance performance based on her ambivalent feelings about her mother's spiritual transformation, which occurred when Renana was 11 years old. With the borderline irony characteristic of the titles of all her works, Renana, who wraps phylacteries around her arm during the performance, called the production "Be Joyful Always," a phrase taken from the teachings of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav.

In her early life, Mira Raz traveled an ordinary enough road: marriage in her early 20s, a degree in Talmud before her children were born, and years devoted to raising them. The frustration set in when the children started to grow up. At the beginning of her 30s, she found herself at a crossroad. "Teaching was the only profession I had ever contemplated, except for being a bank clerk, and that seemed to me to be the height of boredom," she recalls.

Around that time, she noticed a small ad by the IMPJ inviting the public to holiday services. The ad contained a quote from the writings of Orthodox luminary, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: "The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified." The words energized her. She sought a Reform congregation in her hometown of Petah Tikvah, but discovered there was none. "They didn't close the door in my face, though" she says. "They offered me guidance if I would get a serious group of people together." By the next holiday, a Reform prayer service was held in a Petah Tikvah sports hall that was filled to capacity. Thus began what Mira Raz calls her "spiritual journey," and in 2001 she was ordained. During this process, a few years ago, she and her husband divorced.

Raz was not satisfied with what the IMPJ in Israel offered her. "I did not come out of a love of tradition. I was seeking God," she says. On her private journey, her inspiration has been eclectic: She drank in the knowledge she found in books of Hasidism and kabbala, in the works of Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik and Rabbi Kook, in Eastern philosophy and in popular self-help literature.

It may be said that Raz founded a sub-culture within the Reform Movement in Israel, which she calls "the way of faith" and that emphasizes spirituality. The movement, she says, does not deal with the question of faith, but rather is more interested in identity, in the sense of belonging to the Jewish people. So to whom are they praying? "To the God of tradition," says Raz, smiling.

In contrast to this tempestuous woman, the IMPJ itself seems formalistic, (although there are many advocates of the "way of faith" in the movement, among them the Kol Haneshama congregation in Jerusalem, a sort of Hasidic-style Reform congregation led by Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman).

Raz always seems to be a few steps ahead in her spiritual search. On her way to ordination she underwent "spiritual therapy" that she says helped her discover the origin of the pain and sadness that may have been holding her back for years. She tells openly of her encounter with two of the figures of her past lives, who were - wonder of wonders - men. This does not seem strange to Raz. Being reincarnated as a woman was a means of tikkun, of "repairing" these figures who were, she says, chauvinists who were overconfident of their power.

Zavidov: Prayer shawls and kippot

Not long ago, Ada Zavidov toyed with the idea of wrapping herself in her silver-striped prayer shawl and walking the early morning streets of Jerusalem the way Orthodox men do. She finally decided that it would constitute an unnecessary provocation. "It would obviously result in violence," she says sadly. Zavidov likes to wrap herself in her prayer shawl. "It's an accessory that helps connect me to a certain kind of holiness," she says. But Zavidov admits she used to have a problem with the kippah. Recently though she decided to try to "reexamine my feelings on this subject." She ended up "bonding" with her kippah, and ever since has prayed with the "good feeling that there is something above me."

Zavidov, 34, was ordained four years ago. Two years later, she gave birth to her daughter. Until last year she was the rabbi of a congregation in the Jerusalem suburb of Tzur Hadassah. She says that no one in the congregation had anything to say about the fact that she was unmarried.

Asked if it a problem for a rabbi who performs marriage ceremonies to be unmarried, she says rhetorically: "Do I have to be an orphan to conduct a funeral? I recognize that to be considered normal, a family supposedly has to have a father, a mother, two children, a dog and a cat. But that's only one option. The family unit can be made up of a mother and a daughter, or two mothers. The main thing is that there be love and mutual help."

Zavidov, the granddaughter of the late Revisionist leader Abba Ahimeir, says of the secular home of her parents, who were both teachers: "There were values. Our home was not materialistic, it was steeped in the culture of the love of the land of Israel." Zavidov studied philosophy, literature and cinema at the Beit Zvi school of theater arts. Her life was seemingly full of intellectual pursuits.

What, then, charmed her about ancient Jewish rituals? Zavidov describes her first taste of a Reform synagogue, at age 30, as an ecstatic experience, full of light. "I believe in God, the God of the Hebrews. I was never attracted to the East, to India. All my life, I prayed personal prayers." She describes her faith as traditional. "There is an entity up there, although it may not always be listening."

Zavidov divides her life into two parts: before and after she began her rabbinic studies. She had been working at the Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and wondering what direction her life would take, when she says she recognized "a really existential need for self-expression." She found the answer to her need in her studies for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College.

In contrast to most of her women colleagues, there is no trace of sermonizing in the way she speaks. She insists that she does not speak in the name of absolute truth. She has no pretensions of transmitting the message of Reform Judaism to all Israelis because, she says, "this option is not for everyone." Doesn't she want to increase the size of her congregation? "I'm interested in getting to know those who feel the spiritual need for the alternative we present, without coercion." Of course, she expects her daughter "to love the prayers" although, she adds, "it's too early to tell."

Those who know Zavidov say she puts her heart and soul into being a rabbi, sometimes without proper remuneration. The gap in expectations in that regard has caused her, "temporarily," she insists, to leave her congregation at Tzur Hadassah. She has since been working in the Hebrew Union College rabbinical program, and serving as the deputy chair of the Israeli Council of Progressive Rabbis.

Zavidov says that her departure stirred up some anger in the Tzur Hadassah congregation because "a woman rabbi often functions like a mother." Those in the know say that it was not easy for her, either. A source in the IMPJ stated that female rabbis earn less than their male counterparts, despite the greater demands on them, and that Zavidov was burned out. Women, according to the source, are expected to be ready to volunteer more of their time and to earn less money, and because women are not raised to demand proper financial remuneration and help, and they work around the clock. They also act as their own secretaries.

Zavidov shrugs off the claims that her status as a single mother increased the conflict between her career and motherhood. And though she sees her destiny as serving as a congregational rabbi, she admits that since giving birth, she has struggled to deal with her need and desire to spend weekends and holidays with her daughter. She chooses her words carefully when she says that the work of a woman rabbi is more demanding than that of a male. "In every profession, women in senior positions are required to excel, while men can produce work that is amateurish."

In spite of it all, Zavidov increased the Tzur Hadassah congregation considerably. Today, it numbers about 50 families, an impressive figure considering the small size of the community. The IMPJ also runs a kindergarten in the community. For now, Zavidov is taking what she describes as a break, a year-long sabbatical. Will she find her way back? "Besiyata deshmaya," she replies, using the ancient Aramaic phrase meaning "with God's help." "There is such a thing," she adds.

Ramon: `A lightening bolt'

In the middle of the interview, the two-year-old boy stretches out his arms to his mother in a gesture whose meaning was unmistakable. Without slowing down the rapid pace of her speech, Conservative Rabbi Einat Ramon takes him in her arms and presses him to her breast. She did it without batting an eye, revealing the truth of what they say about her - that she nurses her children almost anywhere and any time (although not in the middle of a prayer service that she is leading).

Ramon is one of the first 15 Conservative women rabbis in the world, whose numbers today total about 100, and the second in Israel. In spite of the years that have passed since her ordination, and juggling motherhood and the rabbinate, she does not sound optimistic about the wave of women joining the profession.

Ramon was raised in a secular, very grass-roots Israeli family, steeped in Zionism - her grandfather was one of the founders of Kibbutz Mizra. It was in the United States, where her parents were sent as Zionist emissaries in the 1970s, that she first became exposed to Conservative Judaism and synagogue culture. But only years after studying Jewish identity and Jewish philosophy, did she decide, intuitively, without any knowledge of the profession, to enter the rabbinate. Interestingly, the catalyst for her decision was a meeting with a woman pastor at an interfaith forum. The impressions of her encounter with this non-Jewish female religious leader were still fresh in her mind when she read in Haaretz that the IMPJ was going to be ordaining women. Right then and there, in a step she describes as "a lightening bolt," she decided to become a rabbi.

"I had a lack of spiritual tranquillity within me that stemmed from a search for Jewish identity and an inner struggle with questions that had been with me all along," Ramon says. She never contemplated Orthodoxy, she says, "because of its messianism and the status of women."

In 1984, when she joined the Conservative Movement with the intention of entering the rabbinate, she did not know that it was in the midst of a sharp debate on the issue of the status of women in the rabbinate. When she applied to the Shechter Institute of Judaic Studies (where she is now on the faculty) she discovered that the movement in Israel was not ordaining women, and so she left to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where she was ordained in 1989.

Ramon is married to Reform Rabbi Arik Asherman. They met at the Conservative Ma'ayanot Synagogue in Jerusalem, where he came to pray one Sabbath morning, and she was giving the sermon. They were married in 1985 in an egalitarian ceremony conduced by a male and a female Reform rabbi (there were no women Conservative rabbis in Israel at the time). Even after marriage to a Reform rabbi, Ramon was not attracted to the Reform Movement, in contrast to her colleague, Tammy Kolberg, who today leads a congregation in Ra'anana.

How does a family manage in which both parents are rabbis, burdened by public responsibilities? Like every other family, says Ramon, but with many compromises. They lead a religious lifestyle, they do not travel on the Sabbath or answer the phone. Ramon says that her husband is stricter than she is. "I round off the corners when I feel it's absolutely necessary. My view of the world of mitzvot [religious commandments] is much more flexible."

But despite the harmony within her family, Ramon has no illusions about the difficulty women have in the rabbinate. The years during which she was torn between her rabbinical career and motherhood - with her husband serving as a rabbi in another congregation - wore her down. Today she serves part-time as a congregational rabbi, only on the holidays. Asherman is not a congregational rabbi at present, but serves as chair of Rabbis for Human Rights and can help out with the kids while Ramon is leading prayers in a congregation in Tel Aviv.

"Even this way, it's hard," she says, "to make sure the kids will be in bed by the time you have to lead the service, or to get yourself organized to nurse before the Kol Nidre service begins [on Yom Kippur]."

After spending a year in the U.S. in 1994, during which she served as a congregational rabbi in Montana and also got her doctorate on the writings of A.D. Gordon at Stanford University, she returned to Israel and joined the faculty of the rabbinic program at Shechter. Her appointment at Shechter was another breakthrough, because until that time there were no women lecturers at the institution. Today, she teaches courses in gender and Judaism, and acts as a mentor for the women students. "Women on this path still need to be strengthened. We have single mothers among our women students, and those who come from unsupportive backgrounds. Criticism of women who choose this path is harsh, because the stereotypes run deep."