A Message of Progress

From instruction to inspiration, local female rabbis add spice to the life and world of spirituality

Text By Diane Cohen / Photography By Jonathan Timmes

Rabbis Amy Schwartzman and Lia Bass

Rabbis Amy Schwartzman and Lia Bass

At a time when female leaders are becoming more visible in the political and artistic arenas, it is important to look at examples of women who have succeeded and how women today can draw inspiration from them. A case in point is female rabbis. Until the early 1970s, women in most synagogues were not considered part of a minyan, able to do aliyot, carry the Torah, or serve in leadership roles. Fast forward to 2009, and there are close to 1,000 women rabbis in the United States.

Women first broke into the male-dominated environment starting in 1972 in Cincinnati, Ohio. While not such a rarity today, it is important to recognize how far women have come in Judaism, if only as a representation of what’s possible in the future. During this family-focused season of Hanukkah, it is time to take a look at the future for the local Jewish community and the leaders who will carry the religion into the next decade. Three local women exemplify this feat in the Jewish traditions: Rabbi Avis Dimond Miller, who became the first woman pulpit rabbi, in 1986, for the major conservative congregation at Adas Israel in Washington, D.C.; Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, who leads Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, the largest congregation in the state with 1,400 families; and Rabbi Lia Bass, who is the first Latin-American woman rabbi.

As deeply rooted as they are in their careers, these women are equally devoted to living rich, full and creative lives. Among the three of them, there are eight children. Their own sources of personal inspiration include reading Jewish texts and interpretative literature, cooking gourmet vegetarian meals and exploring nature. They even take the less-traveled road for spiritual enlightenment by drawing from nontraditional sources: Chrissie Hynde—lead vocalist, guitarist and primary songwriter for British punk group The Pretenders—for example, had a big influence on Bass. Schwartzman is a regular fisher and once caught a 190-pound, 8-and-a-half-foot-long marlin. And Miller has swum across the Rio Grande River.

Hynde’s influence on Bass is seen in the “Shabbat Under the Lights” service, held the second Friday of every month. At these services, lead vocalist Bass conducts the service—with the Etz Hayim band—to a Caribbean beat. At regular services, Bass stands in the center aisle—instead of behind the pulpit, except during the reading of the Torah—among the congregants when leading the service and giving the sermon. At one Saturday morning service, she wears a long brown skirt and an orange blouse that matches her hair. She appears close to 6 feet tall. A black woman, two men with their son, every age of singles, couples in their sixties and seventies and 30-something couples with children under the age of 8 make up the congregation that morning.

Rabbis Bass at a 2008 Hanukkah celebration at Etz Hayim in Arlington

Rabbis Bass at a 2008 Hanukkah celebration at Etz Hayim in Arlington

The Torah portion is about the prophetess Miriam, coincidentally one of Bass’s favorite women—“a good role model”—in the holy text. Bass connects the story of Miriam with the current events of that week—including the fatal shooting at the Holocaust Museum. After her sermon, the congregants participate in a 15- to 20-minute discussion on the rabbi’s heartfelt message about the importance of speaking up at times when it’s not popular to say something.

Rising to the Pulpit
Climbing to this level of leadership was not without its challenges. Admitting women to rabbinical school was the source of debate for many years before the dream became a reality. Opposition to women rabbis stemmed from various factors, including Jewish laws that prohibited women from learning to read Torah and lead men. Women rabbis have the Reform movement in part to thank for setting the stage for including them. Reformed synagogues ordained the first female rabbi in 1972. At that time, Bass and Schwartzman were only 8 years old, and Miller was 27. The first Reconstructionist rabbi was ordained in 1974, and the first Conservative rabbi was ordained in 1985.

When Bass and Schwartzman, who are both 45, entered the rabbinate, half of their classmates were women. When Miller, 64, graduated from Wellesley College in 1971, however, there were no women in rabbinical school. She entered rabbinical school at age 35 while raising five sons with her husband in Washington, D.C. and commuted to Philadelphia for her studies.

Currently the president of Open Dor Foundation, an organization that aims to reach out to unaffiliated and marginally active Jews, as well as to non-Jews, Miller also is the Rabbi Emerita with Adas Israel, after working there for 22 years.

Miller’s main reason for becoming a rabbi has to do with “her love of things Jewish,” she says. “L’Chaim and the value we put on life, asking of questions, the smells of Shabbat and the music. And it’s intellectually fascinating,” she continues. “Since the first woman entered rabbinical school, I thought that would be what I wanted to do, but my children where still young. When the two youngest—twins—were in third grade, I decided to apply and was accepted,” says Miller, grandmother of 12.

The struggles Bass met came from another woman. She learned that she was not offered a job because “the president of the synagogue, who was a woman, would not continue working there if they hired a female rabbi.”

For Schwartzman, her gender in combination with her age played a major role: “At first it took awhile for the congregation to get used to having a female rabbi, and I also was only 26 at the time.” Schwartzman goes on, “Because of the expected roles of women, the personal demands are also greater on women. Even though I cook and [my husband] cooks, I’m the one who still thinks about the meals. … I still run the household as well as the largest congregation in the state of Virginia,” she says with a smile in her voice.

Bass, born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, speaks Portuguese, Spanish, English and Hebrew and is the spiritual leader of Etz Hayim (Hebrew for Tree of Life) in Arlington, since 2001. “[It’s] not just straight teaching,” she says. There’s “a lot of counseling, inspiring people to reach a communication with God that enriches their life.” When asked what rewards the rabbinate brings her, Bass replies: “Very few people come home at the end of the day and say, I did something good for others. I’m grateful I have this opportunity. Not as a female, just as a rabbi. It’s the most amazing job, feeling joy from giving to others.”

Rabbis Miller and Schwartzman echo the same sentiment that their unique role as a rabbi has less to do with their gender and more to do with their interest in the Torah, the concerns of the Jewish community and community service. In particular, the “closeness and personal relationships with members of the congregation motivates me as a rabbi,” explains Schwartzman, mother of two daughters.

Rabbis Avis Miller, inside the Sixth and I Synagogue

Rabbis Avis Miller, inside the Sixth and I Synagogue

Gender Roles
Whether or not anyone prefers a male or female Jewish spiritual leader today appears not to matter, at least to those who are willing to share their thoughts. “Although in Orthodoxy there currently are no women rabbis,” says Rabbi Shumel Herzfeld of Temple Ohev Shalom, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C., “recently the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, N.Y., ordained a woman. Her title is Maharat. Although she doesn’t have the formal title of rabbi, she performs the same duties. It’s a matter of semantics.”

Larry Paul, a cantor who for 27 years has shared leading the High Holiday services with Miller, observes: “In general, the female rabbi brings a bit more of the earth mother side of God to the experience. I think there’s more of a nurturing, empathetic, ingredient in the liturgy experience. I think there’s more attention to the feelings going into the experience and the sermons.”

“In particular, [Miller] is a quintessential example of that. Not just on the pulpit, but the programs she has initiated such as adult bat mitzvahs,” continues Paul. “With the male rabbis, I think it’s a bit more of leaning more heavily on the analysis of the text and the patriarchal model—the force on the bihmah similar to the force on the mount.”

Rabbi Jack Moline, of Temple Agudas Achim in Alexandria, comments, “Women have been rabbis for more than 20 years in the Conservative movement and for 10 years longer in the Reform movement. I’ve been working alongside women the whole time, and it is second nature to me. Isn’t it our goal to separate the roles we play from our gender? If Northern Virginia’s been successful, then we’re ahead of the curve and God bless us.”

“When Dr. Alfred Gottschalk, [former president of Hebrew Union College who died September 2009], ordained the first female rabbi [at Hebrew Union College], he liberated the creative energies of half the Jewish population. That’s the essence of the historic transformation. It was a major, major accomplishment. And Rabbi Schwartzman is a supreme example,” says Rabbi Emeritus Laszlo Berkowits of Temple Rodef Shalom, who is in his 46th year as a rabbi. Schwartzman was his assistant at Rodef Shalom before becoming the temple’s senior rabbi.

Coming from an Orthodox background, Marcia Miller, Adas Israel synagogue’s administrative assistant to the clergy, says, “At first I didn’t know what to think. When I was growing up, there were no female rabbis. My first experience with female rabbis was with Rabbi Miller.” She continues, “Rabbi is the title. Rabbi Miller completed the same education as did men. And, I prefer to talk to a female rabbi about a personal or religious issues.”

Stacey Rosenthal, vice president of membership at Etz Hayim and mother of two young sons who attend services with her and her husband, describes Rabbi Bass as “open to all types of families, young and old. She’s flexible with children. She’s progressive.” Michelle Hilburn, education director at Etz Hayim, says “working with Bass is a pleasure. She creates an environment where I can be passionate about my work and enjoy it and feel I’m part of a family.”

Women’s Voices
“In general, Judaism has gained with the inclusion of women,” explains Bass. “No one sees things in the same way,” she continues. “We all see things differently and view things differently. The female perspective enriches Judaism. While not a unified female voice, Judaism needs to include the female voice.”

She adds, “[The female voice] brings a bigger and broader picture. [There are] more pieces to the puzzle. For example, Picasso said he saw what he painted. When looking at his paintings, everyone sees Picasso’s colors in a different way. Therefore, it’s important to have different colors. So it is with women in Judaism. It makes the spectrum broader when you see more colors and many shades of blue or pink. Some people are more comfortable with me as a rabbi because of who I am. Or, because I’m a woman they feel more comfortable talking about certain things.”

Growing up, Bass didn’t think about becoming a rabbi. “Women didn’t even do aliyot, and men and women sat separately.” She attributes where she is today to suffragettes Gloria Steinem, a New York Magazine columnist, and Bella Abzug, first Jewish woman in the House of Representatives; both helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. “They paved the way for me to be who I am. Their activism and the fact that they brought so many issues to light—socially and politically—have allowed me to be who I am.”

“While I didn’t agree with everything, just that they were out there in the media as women, they made it possible for me to have my own voice,” Bass adds. “I realized without the early wave of feminism, women would never be able to have the gains that we have now. For that, I’m grateful.”

Minyan: one of the 10 adult men required for conducting a service
Aliyot: an honor to read from the Torah Hanukkah: Hebrew for “dedication.” Also spelled “Chanukah.”
Kah: in the word Hanukkah, has the numerical value of 25
Shabbat: seventh day of the Jewish week; day of rest
Miriam: prophetess, and sister of Moses and Aaron, appearing first in the Book of Exodus. Believed to have hidden Moses by the river to evade the Pharaoh’s order that newborn Hebrew boys be killed.
Maharat: a leader in Jewish religious law, spiritual matters and Torah
Bihmah: raised platform with reading desk from which a reading from the prophets are read on the Sabbath and festivals

(December 2009)


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