For the past seven years, a handful of women who work with Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) in Santa Monica, have been collecting personal stories from over 175 women rabbis across the globe in order to discover, preserve and communicate the transformative changes in Jewish life that have taken place since the first American woman rabbi was ordained in 1972.
These video interviews are now the Story Archive of Women Rabbis, an extensive collection of very personal narratives, housed online at the Jewish Women’s Archive in Brookline, Massachusetts and available free online at www.jwa.com. The official launch of this project is October 2016.
As a pre-event to the launch, local audiences will be able to see talented actors make the stories of 18 prominent L.A. rabbis come alive as their stories are performed by professional actors in Stories From The Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!. There are several performances in September at The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica.
“Only in the last 44 years have Jewish women been allowed to be full participants in Judaism,” explains Ronda Spinak, JWT’s artistic director and the driving force behind the Story Archive project. “It wasn’t long ago that girls could not be bat mitzvaed, counted in a minyan (quorums of ten adults required for certain religious ceremonies), or even participate in rituals that honored their own family members.”
“Someone needed to gather the stories of the pioneers who changed all that, so the voices of trailblazing women rabbis could be preserved forever,” Lynne Himelstein, Co-Director of the Story Archive adds. “We accepted that responsibility and know everyone who hears them will be enriched and affected. They certainly changed me.”
To date, more than 175 interviews have been collected from women rabbis across the globe. This is more that 15% of the entire female rabbi population. The visual history of these women is now being archived and made accessible to everyone on a website. JWT’s collection and preservation of these historic thoughts has been called “A gift to the Jewish people” by Joshua Holo, Dean of Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles.
“At first, this project was funded from the pockets of a few who believed that we were living through a historic time and that these stories needed to be collected as a legacy for the Jewish people,” says Spinak. “Then we received a grant from the Ziering Family Foundation upon the forward thinking recommendation of Marilyn Ziering, which came at just the right time to allow us to broaden our reach. We are so grateful for their support.”
A second major grant was given to the project by The Donald and Lily Rosman Family Trust, which allowed for more rabbi stories to be included in the historic project, including those living in Israel, England, France, Germany, Poland and Switzerland. “As more funds are collected, more rabbis and their stories will be edited and uploaded onto the JWA site,” says Janis Nelson, Board Chair of JWT and one of the original team. The hope is to include stories from all women rabbis.
L.A.’s Rachel Adler, whose videoed interviews are part of the exhibit, is an ordained rabbi and author of the essay, The Jew Who Wasn’t There and the book, Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics, which won the National Jewish Book Award for Thought. In her video interview, Adler states, “Jewish women used to have purely enabling roles. When I learned I could not be counted as a person for a minyan, I asked, “What am I, a cockroach?”
Adler believes that the answer to exclusion was not for feminists to abandon Judaism, but to reform it. She continues to reinterpret Jewish law and tradition, offering women new ways to participate in the Jewish community. She was finally ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles in 2012, where she still teaches.
Denise Eger, the first openly gay woman rabbi in the world, and now the officiant at Kol Ami in West Hollywood, recalls on tape how for many years she was the only rabbi who would visit and counsel Jewish AIDS victims.
Laura Geller, one of the first rabbis ordained in the early 70s, later broke the “stained glass ceiling,” when she became the first woman rabbi to lead a major metropolitan synagogue in Los Angeles at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. She explains how hard Jewish women fought to be included in the conversation. “There is no important moment in the life of a Jew for which there is not blessing,” she states. “How could women not be allowed to receive these blessings?”
Naomi Levy, the rabbi at Neshuva, and one of Newsweek’s “50 most Influential Rabbis in America,” describes her unexpected career path from student to rabbi. “I never thought of rabbi as a profession,” she states. “I just wanted to study.”
Recollections such as these are the framework of the Jewish Women’s Archive Exhibit and of Stories From The Fringe, a new theatrical performance that will be featured at JWT on Sept. 15, 17 and 18. For tickets and additional information regarding times, visit www.jewishwomenstheatre.org. Tickets are $40 and include a dessert buffet and Q & A with talent and community leaders.
JWT provides a home for the diverse and eclectic community of artists and creators who comprise L.A.’s Jewish women’s (and now men’s) community. Both at its home at The Braid theatre and art gallery in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Arts District, in intimate salons throughout the area, and on tour throughout the country, JWT stages and displays traditional and contemporary works that provide a forum for the development, performance and showcasing of Jewish talent. JWT aims to leave no Jewish story untold, while celebrating the truths that connect us all.
— Submitted by Rose Ziff