My savta, my rabbi


My granddaughter, Noa Rebecca Ende Yager, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah last weekend with a tribute to curiosity. She read from B’reisheet, the first chapter of the first book of Genesis. Noa was poised and confident, full of joy as always. Her sincerity, so touching in a twelve-year-old, was manifest in the set of her shoulders, adorned with a prayer shawl that had been made for my oldest daughter, Naama, for her own Bat Mitzvah thirty years ago. On the collar of the tallit, a Hebrew inscription from Proverbs: “Wisdom begins with awe.”

After reading from the Torah, she delivered a teaching she had prepared, which included these words:

One the one hand, Eve’s curiosity shows her eagerness to be knowledgeable and learn about the world. On the other hand, Eve’s curiosity would mean that she would disobey God’s commandment. Adam and Eve’s curiosity to taste the apple and taste the knowledge was so strong that it even overcame their will to obey God…I understand her curiosity and her hunger for that apple full of knowledge. I learned that the Torah, such an ancient text, really does have relevance for me in this modern age.

Afterward, she took a breath and read her “thank-you part.”

This special day would not have been successful without the help of so many people. First, I would like to especially thank my Savta for being my Rabbi…

My Savta. My Rabbi.

As we stood side by side on the dais at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the nation’s capital, my dual roles became interwoven into a one-of-a-kind tapestry: it was the first time that I was officiating as a woman rabbi at the bat mitzvah of my own granddaughter. My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, one of my uncles, and my father-in-law, all of blessed memory, had carried the title of rabbi, but the ordination of female rabbis did not even begin until the year I had my first child. It hadn’t occurred to me, as a young woman, that I could carry on that legacy. Now, we stood at the intersection between history and family.

The very first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935 under the authority of her mentor, Rabbi Max Weyl, after attending the Judische Theologisches Seminar in Breslau. She wrote her thesis there on the subject, “May a Woman Hold Rabbinic Office?” and this is the first known attempt to find a legal basis for women’s ordination in Jewish law. She was sent to Theresienstadt in 1942 and performed rabbinical functions there until 1944. She died in Auschwitz that same year with no successor. Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 1972 and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974. These women were still outliers in the movement toward ordaining women rabbis.

Within the Conservative movement, the demands for women’s equality were presented by the Ezrat Nashim group in 1972. That same year, Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of the eminent Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, asked the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City to consider her application to its rabbinical school. She was denied entrance. Had she been the son of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, she would have been given the accolades due to someone of her lineage. Today she is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth and lectures at the Jewish Theological Seminary. But it was 1983 before the JTS faculty voted to open the doors of its rabbinical school to women. Nineteen women entered the first rabbinic class, and in May,1985, Amy Eilberg was ordained the first female rabbi by the Conservative seminary.

In the space of three decades, women rabbis have transformed the religious landscape of modern Jewish America. We have created new rituals for the moments unique to a woman’s life cycle and shaped feminist theology and textual interpretation. We have pioneered careers in chaplaincy and healing, justice and peacemaking. We have taught Torah, comforted the bereaved, studied with Jews-by-choice and designed our own spiritual communities, large and small, throughout the United States. As of this year, over fifty percent of the classes in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist seminaries are female. Yeshivat Maharat, the first orthodox yeshiva established in 2009, has so far ordained five women with the title “maharat”, a Hebrew acronym for manhiga hilkhatit rukhanit toranit, or female leader of Jewish law, spirituality and Torah.

Today, there are close to 1,000 female rabbis in America. I am one of them.

My faith in God has always been strong and positive, but my Jewish education was minimal. I was not required to dig deep into the mysteries of the Torah. But once I understood that I could shed the strictures of my orthodox upbringing–once it became clear to me that I wanted to be the one to carry on my family’s rabbinic lineage–I jumped into the river where the ancient knowledge flowed. I was fearless and ferocious.

I was ordained at the age of forty-eight by the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City, a seminary that trains rabbis and cantors with a pluralistic focus for contemporary Jewish communities. They welcomed me as a second career student. I graduated in 1995 with five women and one man. We were all over forty-five.

That was twenty years ago. Grandchildren were not even a twinkle in my eye. But now, many of my classmates are grandparents. We are elders, but not in the rabbinate. At least the women are not. In the future, there will be many granddaughters who will be calling their Savtas their Rabbis. But the Savta-Rabbis of the present time are still few.

This past year I have seen a surfeit of joy: One year ago, my oldest granddaughter, Ilana, celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue in Atlanta, Georgia. Eight months ago, my oldest grandson, Adin, became a Bar Mitzvah at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC. And on Columbus Day weekend, my second oldest granddaughter, Noa, had her bat mitzvah in the same sacred space.

My Savta. My Rabbi.

My granddaughters and your granddaughters have access to the present day Tree of Knowledge in their own home-grown Gardens of Eden. I am proud to be a witness and a teacher in this time of transformation, and I can see the unbroken chain of my granddaughters’ knowledge stretching far into the future.

Every once in a miraculous while, we, like Moses, are given a sneak peak into our own Promised Land. When I looked sideways from my podium to Noa’s podium, I saw that the seeds of my labor had blossomed into a beautiful flower whose fragrance reached the heavens

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