Archive project will tell stories of women rabbis

Archive project will tell stories of women rabbis

What started as an idea for a play — also a documentary — about women rabbis has transformed into a project to videotape interviews with these trailblazing clergy from all four streams of Judaism and archive their stories online.

The latest stop for the video crew of the Los Angeles-based Story Archive of Women Rabbis was last month’s Women’s Rabbinic Network convention in Long Branch, N.J. There, at least two rabbis with Pittsburgh area connections — Beth Jacowitz Chottiner of Temple Shalom, Wheeling, W.Va., and Reena Spicehandler, former interim rabbi of Temple David, Monroeville — were interviewed for the growing story trove.

To date, nearly 50 rabbis have been interviewed, including the pioneering first female rabbi ordained in each of the four major denominations — Sally Priesand (Reform), Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (Reconstructionist), Amy Eilberg (Conservative) and, most recently, Sara Hurwitz (Orthodox).

Priesand, now retired from her pulpit in New Jersey, has embraced the archive project.

“It’s beneficial to Jewish communities throughout North America to understand what the journey was like,” she said of the interviews. “Some journeys were the same; some journeys were different.”

Regina Jonas is believed to be the first woman rabbi ever ordained. She received her rabbinic s’micha from Rabbi Max Dienemann in Germany, 1935, after completing a thesis entitled, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Two other rabbis refused to ordain her before she turned to Dieneman, head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association in Germany. She died in Auschwitz in 1944.

Spinak, a co-director of the project, expects the archive project will likely include pull down menus containing historical references to famous figures in the women’s rabbinical movement.

But the archive project deals mainly with women currently in the rabbinate or about to retire.

“All these stories are very inspiring and moving,” said Ronda Spinak, who co-directs the project with Conservative Rabbi Lynne A. Kern and Lynne Himelstein, are co-directing the project.

The project, Spinak said, “will give a wider audience a chance to hear what these intelligent, wise, learned people are saying about subjects like God or holy moments of personal crises — how you help people through that. It also preserves this time in history, this first wave of women rabbis coming through and how they’re changing Judaism.”

The American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati has expressed interest in the project. Rabbi Gary Zola, director of the AJA, told the Chronicle that he expects his facility will be the main repository for the interviews.

The AJA also will work with the Jewish Womens Archive to develop study materials and online exhibits with its materials, Zola said.

He added that the AJA launched its own women rabbis archival initiative about three year years ago, with the help of Priesand.

“Rabbi Priesand has already announced her intention of contributing her papers to the AJA (and she has begun doing so),” he said. “Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the second woman ordinee has also committed herself to this effort. Both the women rabbis of the Reform movement and the Reconstructionist movement have agreed that the AJA would be the central repository for their individual professional papers — at the proper time.”

According to Spinak, the project traces its roots to a 2009 study session she attended about biblical Jewish women who weren’t well known. That led to the idea for a play and film about women rabbis, which the Los Angeles-based Jewish Women’s Theatre produced. The Theatre remains the chief supporter of the archive project.

“Out of that idea of Jewish women’s stories needing to be heard came the idea of putting women rabbi’s stories on stage,” Spinak said. “It had never been done in a collective way.”

The play, which Spinak co-wrote with Kern, titled “Stories from the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed,” debuted in May 2010 in salon theater (performances in homes).

“We had tremendous responses, standing ovations in homes,” Spinak recalled. “It was a reading (not a stage production with setting and costumes) but still the response was tremendous.”

The documentary is still in production, Spinak said, though she hopes to complete filming next year.

But the idea for a story archive didn’t take hold until Spinak visited Paris that summer and met the first woman rabbi in France, Pauline Bebe.

She didn’t have a film crew with her, but she did have a Flip camera, and asked Bebe if she could interview her. Bebe agreed.

When Spinak asked Bebe, as she does most rabbis she interviews, what her understanding of God is, “she looked at me and said, ‘no French journalist would ask this question because we don’t speak about God.’ They speak about spirituality.”

That’s when Spinak knew the project could be much bigger than a salon play or a film.

“From that interview, I realized we could potentially collect the stories for every woman rabbi worldwide,” upload them to a website and make them accessible to everyone.

Perhaps the most seminal moment of the whole project came Dec. 6, 2010, when a video crew for the project shot “First Lights,” a program in which the first women rabbis of the four movements — together for the first time — and some 30 other women rabbis lit Chanuka candles at a synagogue in Newton, Mass., then spoke about their experiences in an open forum.

Meeting Hurwitz, the Orthodox rabbi who has the feminized title “rabba,” and still faces strong resistance in her community, was a bonding experience, Priesand said of the program.

“I could certainly tell in listening to her story that there were many things we shared,” Priesand said. “It’s not easy to be the first of something.”

How far the archive project goes will depend on funding and how its organizers define it moving forward, Spinak said.

“Our main concern, off the blocks, is to capture stories of the women who are close to retirement and are first or second generations [of rabbis],” Spinak said. “That’s not to say those who are ordained in Israel or going to Poland wouldn’t also be [interviewed], but we want to capture those who were on the front lines initially. I think that’s historical and vastly important work to do.

“It’s a project in its pilot phase,” she added. “We will learn from this first phase how to evaluate. Do we include everyone? I don’t have the answer. This is still evolving.”

Priesand said women rabbis still face challenges.

“There are still hurdles in the highest levels of leadership, salary equity and being welcomed as senior rabbis, so there’s still a lot of things we’re working on,” she said. “We’re making progress, though, and little by little we’re getting there.”

In fact, this year’s ordination class at all four campuses of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion totaled 35, 25 of whom were women. At the New York ceremony, which Priesand attended, only one of the 12 newly ordained rabbis was a man.

Priesand congratulated him after the service. “I know how you feel,” she told him.

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at

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