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Women rabbis ushering great social change

Eve and Robbie Weiner, my daughter and son-in-law, are completing their third year at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Even with two more years to go before they complete their studies and are ordained as rabbis, it is clear to me how much seminary education has changed since I was a student at the same school "way back when."

The most important and obvious change is the large number of women who are currently studying to become rabbis. With the exception of the Orthodox Jewish community, the other branches of Judaism _ Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionism _ now draw their rabbinical candidates from 100 percent of the Jewish community.

And the entrance of women into the rabbinate is part of the most important social movement of the last 30 years: the struggle to achieve equal rights for women within American society.

While Orthodox Judaism still limits the rabbinate to men, the continuing effort of talented, knowledgeable and committed women inside that community has created an irreversible momentum for purposeful change. Many of my Orthodox rabbinic colleagues quietly tell me it is no longer a question whether women will become rabbis, but only when and under what conditions it will happen.

But the presence of female rabbis is more than a matter of quantity; it is also radically changing the American rabbinate in ways that were unforeseen in 1972 when Sally J. Priesand became the first woman to be ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Increasingly, Jewish seminary faculties that were once all male, are being "integrated" by women scholars who are choosing academic careers once the sole preserve of men.

Women have created new or spiritually enriched synagogue liturgies and rituals for circumcision, baby naming, Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, marriage, and death. The traditional definition of the Jewish home as a mikdash m'aat, or small sanctuary, has taken on new meaning when female rabbis give birth and when male rabbis take family leave time from their congregations to be with their young children.

And because there are many women in rabbinical schools, biblical figures such as Ruth, Miriam, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel and Deborah are no longer being given the short shrift they consistently received when I was a seminary student.

This new attention is not a case of being politically or religiously correct. Rather, it represents a systematic attempt, albeit one still in its early stages, to fully recognize the vital role of women in shaping the values and ideals of Jews and Judaism.

In addition to women students, there is another profound change taking place at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and, indeed, at all Jewish seminaries _ a kind of generational passing.

In my student years, many faculty members had been trained in the extraordinary rich Jewish civilization of Eastern and Central Europe that existed before the Holocaust. The magnificent academies of Poland and Lithuania as well as the great German universities were represented on the HUC-JIR teaching staff after World War II.

Looking back, I can now see those professors, who sometimes seemed somewhat strange and exotic, were, in fact, the human bridge connecting a youthful rabbinical student from Virginia with the vibrant Jewish world before the Holocaust that once was and is no more. For better or worse, Eve, Robbie and their classmates will not have that same rich experience. Instead, 53 years after the Holocaust, today's HUC-JIR teachers are trained in the United States or in Israel, the two centers of contemporary Jewish life.

And finally, the existence of Israel is the biggest change in rabbinic school. In my student days the Jewish state was a young fledgling country that had only a limited impact on our curriculum and on our personal lives.

It was not because we were disinterested, but because of communication and travel. Few Israelis visited our school in those years and few of my classmates studied in Israel. It was the era of long flights in propeller aircraft and a time when placing an overseas telephone was often an all day affair.

Now, HUC-JIR requires all students to spend their first year of study in Jerusalem, enabling them to become familiar with the state of Israel, its people, geography and, of course, its Hebrew language.

Understand me well: I do not regret my rabbinic training, but the seminaries, they are a-changin', and this fact makes me very happy.

Rabbi Rudin is the National Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee.

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