There was a time when a woman couldn’t even aspire to be a rabbi. Today, they are the leaders of the non-Orthodox rabbinate in America.
The Feb. 28 installation of Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus as the new president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement, marks the first time in history that women are simultaneously at the helm of three of the major branches of Judaism.
Dreyfus joins Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly for the Conservative movement, and Rabbi Toba Spitzer, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, as leaders of their respective clergy.
“I think it’s mostly a matter of catching up,” said Rabbi Spitzer, speaking from Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Boston. “Men still far outnumber women [in terms of rabbinic leadership], but this is certainly a trend.”
Spitzer said that because the ordination of women is still a relatively new phenomenon, particularly in the Conservative movement, it has taken awhile for women to work their way up into leadership roles.
“There are now a greater number of women becoming rabbis, so there are more women to take on those roles. But it is obviously a vote of confidence,” Spitzer said.
Dreyfus was in Jersualem for the CCAR conference, where she is being installed, and could not be reached for comment.
In both the Reform and the Reconstructionist movements, women have been ordained as rabbis since the early 1970s. The Conservative movement voted in 1983 to begin admitting women to its seminaries.
The Orthodox movement still excludes women from the rabbinate, despite advocacy for women’s ordination by outspoken Orthodox writers and leaders such as feminist Blu Greenburg and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation B’nai David-Judea in Los Angeles.
Dreyfus, 57, whose pulpit is at B’nai Yehuda Beth Shalom in Homewood, Ill., is the second woman to assume the presidency of the CCAR.
“This is a wonderful milestone,” said Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. “Women have been rabbis for 36 years in the Reform movement, and we, like our male colleagues, have been successfully filling positions of leadership in accordance with our expertise and skill sets. It is exciting that the Reform movement will have Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, a talented and committed rabbi as the president of our movement.”
“I look forward to the day when three women in positions of national leadership won’t be, in and of itself, particularly newsworthy,” Henry added.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)