Clockwise from top left, Rabbi Lori Shapiro of Open Temple, Rabbi Lizzie Heydemann of Mishkan Chicago, Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum of the Kavana Cooperative, Rabbi Noa Kushner of the Kitchen and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva. (Photos courtesy of the congregations)
(JTA) — A decade ago in Los Angeles, two organizations opened their doors with a call to prayer — or they would have if they had any doors to open.
Ikar, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous, and Nashuva, led by Rabbi Naomi Levy, were conceived separately. But when they launched in 2004, both offered a novel, and in many ways similar, approach to Jewish spirituality and community — regularly scheduled, rabbi-led services that were not affiliated with any movement or institution, that met in rented space, and that were avowedly not synagogues.
“We were trying to walk into the conversation about Jewish identity and community and ritual without preconceived ideas about where we would land,” Brous told JTA, describing the beginnings of Ikar. “What we were trying to do didn’t follow any model that already existed.”
Since then, however, the format pioneered by Nashuva and Ikar has become its own recognizable model, and similar spiritual communities with a noticeably common style have sprung up in a number of other cities across the country.
Prayer is designed to be heartfelt and arouse the spirit. Often there is clapping, dancing and singing without words. Worshipers tend to skew young, informal and hip. The groups don’t own buildings; typically they meet in up-and-coming or already desirable neighborhoods.
The communities are led by charismatic rabbis who stress innovation and outreach to Jews who feel alienated from existing Jewish institutions. They are nondenominational. They often don’t know exactly how to describe themselves.
And most, but not all, have one more common element: They were founded, and are still being led by, female rabbis.
In 2006, Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum launched The Kavana Cooperative in Seattle. In 2011, Rabbi Noa Kushner opened The Kitchen in San Francisco and Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann initiated Mishkan Chicago in the Windy City. In 2012, Rabbi Lori Shapiro started Open Temple in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Venice.
Newsweek magazine, this year in conjunction with its sister publication The Daily Beast, has just published its annual list of America’s 50 “most influential” rabbis. It’s Newsweek’s fifth such list but the first time that a woman — writer Abigail Pogrebin — has been directly involved in the selection, which no doubt explains why the number of women on the list has more than doubled. This year, 13 women made the list; that’s up from 6 last year.
The Newsweek list has come under fire in years past for including a paucity of women and for ranking rabbis at all (though, to be sure, rabbis who make the list often include their ranking in their official bios, and I’ve heard a few of them mention the distinction when being interviewed about something totally unrelated).
Interestingly, six of the seven women who were new to the list were on The Sisterhood 50 last year — a list compiled by Sisterhood editor Gabrielle Birkner in response to the shortage of female rabbis mentioned. Pogrebin says that she had The Sisterhood 50 “very close by, always,” when working on Newsweek’s rabbi rankings. “Other lists are instructive and their own snapshot of a perspective,” she told The Sisterhood. “I wanted to very much consult what was already out there, and some of those lists were intended to be a corrective.”
Newsweek magazine is out with its annual list of what it deems the 50 most influential rabbis in the country. As usual, women are a tiny number of those selected by the three entertainment-industry figures: the heads of Sony Pictures, News Corp. and Jewish Television Network Productions — all men, and all based in Los Angeles. For those of us in the Jerusalem of the Diaspora — and by that I mean Brooklyn, or at least New York City — some of the choices may seem biased toward the left coast and the gender of the selection committee members.
You can see the complete list and their criterion and points-rating system here.
You may notice that there are just 5 women deemed important enough to have made the cut — that’s only 10 percent. And yet, it’s an improvement over last year, when there were just three women out of the 50 rabbis chosen.
To be sure, women are a minority among rabbis in their respective movements.
In the Reform movement, which began ordaining women in 1972, women make up 30% to 35% of working rabbis, says Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.
In the Conservative movement, which began ordaining women in 1983, women make up about 12% of Rabbinical Association members, says Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, the RA’s incoming executive vice president.
Nonetheless, both said, there are more female rabbis doing important, visible work than is obvious from the list authors’ choices. “It’s pretty sad that they could only find five women, and it reflects the limited range of their vision,” says Rabbi Ellenson. You can see more about her organization here.
Rabbi Schoenfeld, who takes the helm of the RA in July, noted that three of the five women who made the list — Rabbis Sharon Brous (ranked #31), spiritual leader of the L.A. congregation Ikar, Naomi Levy (#35), who writes about spirituality and liturgy, and Jill Jacobs (#48), with the Jewish Funds for Justice, are Conservative rabbis.
The other two women are Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (#18), incoming head of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum (#25), a Reconstructionist rabbi who leads the gay and lesbian synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Taking the top three spots on this year’s list are Rabbis David Saperstein, who runs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Marvin Hier, who is Orthodox and runs the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Mark Charendoff, who has Orthodox rabbinic ordination and runs the Jewish Funders Network. Said Charendoff: “I’m not sure I understand how the list gets put together, it’s not like we’re interviewed about it. I really couldn’t say anything about why someone is on it or not, or high or low. Last year I was on the list for the first time, and I was incredulous last year, so I wasn’t shocked I was on it this year but I was certainly surprised at being so high up.”
The very idea of ranking rabbis rankles Rabbi Schonfeld, though. “Picking 50 and then putting them in an order is not consistent with the sacred work we do,” she said. “I don’t start from the place where the list starts.”
At the end of the day, the list reflects only the point of view of the three men who assembled it, says Rabbi Ellenson. “I don’t think there are any criterion for making the list beyond who these guys know.”