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Seminary Barriers Fall

A historic year in the history of the Conservative movement drew to a close in May with the ordination of Amy Eilberg, 30, of Philadelphia as the first Conservative woman rabbi. Eilberg was among 18 female students who entered the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School last fall, comprising some 50% of the incoming class, in keeping with the JTS Faculty Senate’s monumental October 1983 decision to open the Rabbinical School to women.

Eilberg completed the six-year Rabbinical School course in one year because she received credit for courses taken at JTS since 1976. She had completed all the course requirements for a doctorate in Talmud.

The final barrier to Eilberg’s entry into the Conservative rabbinate fell last February, when the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative rabbis, passed an amendment to its constitution stating that all graduates of the JTS will automatically become RA members upon ordination. (Previously, graduates had to be accepted individually, by 75% of the delegates voting at an RA convention.) Passed by a vote of 636-267 through a mail ballot of the RA membership, the amendment was proposed to avoid a possible floor fight on Eilberg’s acceptance to the RA, according to informed sources.

This concern was based on the RA’s rejection of the application of Rabbi Beverly Magidson, ordained by the Reform Hebrew Union College, for the past two years in a row, although the organization does admit male Reform rabbis. The general feeling expressed at the 1984 RA convention was that Magidson’s acceptance would have to follow the admission of the first woman Seminary graduate. On March 11, 1985, the RA voted, “overwhelmingly” to admit both Magidson and Rabbi Jan Carol Kaufman, who was also ordained in the Reform movement.

The past year has been one of excitement, change and adjustment at the JTS Rabbinical School. “It felt like the place was reeling,” Eilberg told the Jewish Student Press Service, describing the first co-ed semester. “The ground was moving beneath our feet.”

The women rabbinical students have already made their presence felt. Since they are, on the average, older than their male counterparts, many observers have noted that they bring new perspectives, drawn from their personal and academic experience, to the JTS.

With the enrollment of women rabbinical students has come a second daily minyan (prayer service) at the Seminary. The “upstairs” minyan is egalitarian and is based on the full participation of women, while the “downstairs” minyan does not allow for such participation. In addition, according to JSPS reporter Marlene Goldman, the Rabbinical School curriculum has come under review, with an eye toward expanding its practical component in such areas as psychology, education and counseling, in addition to the traditional emphasis on classical texts.

The presence of women has also raised several profound questions relating to Jewish law and practice. For one thing, the issue of edut— women’s ability to serve as witnesses in ritual matters—has not yet been satisfactorily resolved by the Conservative movement, leaving many women rabbinical students to grapple with the dilemma on their own.

Several believe that they might not serve as witnesses on Jewish marriage, divorce, and conversion documents out of consideration for individuals within the Jewish community who would consider their signatures, and therefore the documents themselves, invalid. In addition, some first-year women rabbinical students have questioned the need for women aspiring to positions of religious leadership in the Jewish community to “look like men,” for example, in the wearing of tefillin (phylacteries), during morning services as well as yarmulkes (skull-caps).

These and other issues have been under discussion in a support group formed by the first-year women students. Among the topics addressed have been women’s self-perception as rabbis, juggling career and family responsibilities, and dealing with opposition.

That opposition to women’s ordination remains strong within the Conservative movement is evident from statements issued by the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism, a group of Conservative rabbis who denounced the recent RA decision as “contrary to Jewish law.” Moreover, many JTS faculty members continue to be vocally opposed to women’s ordination, although women students report that these professors have not allowed their personal views to interfere with their teaching.