openly a lesbian rabbi!

by tobybee

The Jewish Theological Seminary (the main rabbinical seminary for Conservative Judaism) has recently (at the end of May) ordained its first openly lesbian rabbi, Rachel Isaacs. It’s quite a thing!

That this could happen is, as an article by Amy Stone in new edition of Lilith frames it, a result of a great deal of reform within the Conservative movement: in 1985 the first woman Conservative rabbi was ordained, and in 2006 it was decided that the Conservative movement would ordain openly gay/lesbian students.

And so we have Isaacs:

Isaacs described her coming-of-age as a lesbian: “I came out to myself around 14. I started the Gay-Straight Alliance in high school (in Freehold, NJ). At Wellesley, being gay was in no way noteworthy.” Openly lesbian, when she was ready for rabbinic school, Conservative Judaism was not ready for her. Isaacs spent two years at Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and transferred to the Jewish Theological Seminary ( JTS) in New York as soon as the school admitted openly gay and lesbian rabbinical students, in 2007.
Although Isaacs feels her ordination “represents a revolutionary moment in Jewish history,” she has no desire to be the Jewish lesbian poster person. Wearing a small black yarmulke and speaking in a resonant voice, Isaacs explained, “I count myself lucky to be born in 1983. I have to pause to think about the wider implications of who I am.” Simply by her gender she’s challenging the patriarchy of Judaism, but, she says, “I probably take that for granted.” She said, “My ultimate goal is to give Jews the resources to perform mitzvahs.”

We do still, of course, need to question how much has changed within synagogues. As the Lilith article states, “Of the approximately 1,600 Conservative rabbis, fewer than 300 are women. More than 25 years after that first female ordination, many synagogues still want a male rabbinic leader created in the image of a male God. It seems you can ordain women rabbis, but you can’t legislate an end to patriarchy.” An example of this is “Aaron Weininger, the first openly gay rabbinical candidate to enter as a first-year student under the new policy”: The minefield of congregational work blew up under Weininger when he was a student rabbi. At the start of his synagogue work this past December, he came out in his opening sermon to the congregation and received a largely enthusiastic reception. Then, in April, he was barred from making his monthly visit. The synagogue president had instituted a policy giving bar and bat mitzvah families the right to keep him away the weekend of their family event, and the family with the April bat mitzvah didn’t want him there.” When he was invited to return the next year, Weininger declined, which (I think) is a fantastic stand to take.

A couple of years ago my family and I moved from attending an Orthodox synagogue to a Conservative one, and this has further confirmed for me that that was a step in the right direction – that there is great potential within the Conservative movement for a Judaism that I could embrace (although it’s not totally there yet). Although I sadly can’t imagine the Melbourne Conservative community embracing a woman (gay/lesbian/queer or straight) or a gay/queer man as their rabbi anytime soon.

In any case, we have to wish a hearty mazeltov to Rachel Isaacs, and to JTS!

*you could also check out this article in the Sisterhood blog of the Forward