Rabbi Sandra Lawson, on right (Photo courtesy of Lawson)

When famous artists like Chagall depict rabbis, they are painted as bearded men, often hunched over ancient texts or wrapped in their prayer shawls. When depicted in film, a rabbi is almost always shown as a saintly older man, most often with a European accent, with Hollywood representations almost exclusively always showing rabbis as men. This stereotype is so common that American Sign Language’s word for “Jew” borrows from this imagery, showing the mimicking of running one’s fingers through beard hair.

In contrast to these traditional rabbinic images, Rabba Sara Hurwitz—who uses a title to denote the feminine form of the Hebrew word for “rabbi”—became one of the first ordained Orthodox women in the world when she completed her rabbinical studies in 2009. When she was originally ordained, she used the title “Maharat,” created to denote religious female leadership. However, the title was not always clear to others, so Hurwitz subsequently changed it to “Rabba” to reflect her rabbinic role. While throughout Jewish history there have been a tiny number of Orthodox women who have received private ordination or served as female leaders, in Orthodoxy, being a rabbi has almost exclusively been seen as the domain of men.

Hurwitz was ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a well-known rabbi in Riverdale, New York, in a public ceremony that made clear her connection to the pulpit and brought on an onslaught of controversy. The retribution was swift: Major American Orthodox rabbinical bodies publicly condemned Weiss and went to great pains to confirm that they considered his actions beyond the limitations of Orthodoxy. The fallout was so significant that Weiss resigned from the Rabbinical Council of America, one of the largest organizations for Orthodox rabbis.

Nonetheless, Hurwitz’s ordination was a watershed moment for Orthodox women across the world. “I didn’t know then what it would turn into, but I knew that there was a thirst for Orthodox female leadership in the rabbinate,” Hurwitz said. “It went from being a concept that was supported by a small group of people in my family and my neighborhood in Riverdale to spreading across the country, and then across the world to hundreds and then thousands of people who wanted to support Orthodox female leadership.”

Immediately after her ordination, Hurwitz became the dean of the first rabbinical program for Orthodox women called Yeshivat Maharat, based in Riverdale. She said, “Anyone who knew me personally understood that this dream made a lot of sense to me and didn’t ask me ‘what my agenda was.’ They knew that my motivation was to learn, teach, and study Torah.” In just over twelve years, Yeshivat Maharat has graduated close to 50 female Orthodox rabbis with another 50 students currently studying and enrolled in their programs (including me, as I have been a student there for the past two years).

When women graduate from Yeshivat Maharat, they are given the freedom to pick whatever title they feel is best suited to their personal circumstances and that reflects the seriousness of their scholarship. The most common selections include “Rabba” or “Rabbanit,” although some graduates choose “Rabbi.” Graduates are given this choice because, as one Maharat graduate recently told me, “conferring an obligatory title such as ‘Rabbi’ on each woman who is ordained would lead to communal politics and potential backlash.”

Hurwitz thinks the shifting face of the rabbinate is a mirror of the changes occurring in American Jewish communities. “It is often hard to imagine doing something if you don’t see someone like yourself doing it as well,” she said. “Growing up I didn’t know any Orthodox female rabbis. I didn’t know it was possible, but my ordination changed that image for a lot of women. When you can see yourself in the faces of your rabbis, you can imagine being one.”

Across the United States, more diverse groups are joining the rabbinate, from Orthodox women to members of the LGBTQI community and Jewish people of color, questioning the stereotype of what it means to be a “rabbi” of the Jewish people.

The recently released 2020 Pew Research Center survey, based on the responses of 4,718 Jewish American adults, reflects the notion that American Jews as a cohort are changing. According to the study’s lead researcher, Becka A. Alper, “the overall share of Jewish adults who identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian, or with another race or multiple races is similar to what it was in 2013 (8 percent in 2020 and 6 percent in 2013).” However, the data suggests that, like the country’s population as a whole, the racial and ethnic diversity of Jewish people in the United States is starting to shift, especially among younger demographics.

“Among Jewish adults under the age of 30, 15 percent identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian, or with another race or multiple races; by comparison, 3 percent of Jewish people ages 50 and older identify this way,” noted Alper in an email. The report also found that 29 percent of Jewish adults under 30 live in a household that includes at least one person who is non-white, compared with 14 percent of Jewish adults over 30.

Rabbi Sandra Lawson is a Black, queer rabbi who studied at a Reconstructionist rabbinical school. She thinks that Judaism, which has continually evolved over the centuries, is ready for the changes that are emerging from within its leadership. “As intermarriage rates continue to rise in Judaism, we will see more people of color,” Lawson said. “Judaism is attractive to a lot of people in the United States, so as more people adopt the religion, they will need leaders that reflect them.”

Lawson has dedicated herself to promoting Jewish people of color in leadership, whether it be the rabbinate or in positions of leadership at Jewish organizations. “The current demographics show that the Jewish community is changing, and along with these changes there is a greater need for different representation in leadership,” she said.

Lawson was recently named the first ever director of racial diversity, equity and inclusion of the Reconstructionist Movement. She thinks that there is still a lot of work to do to help Jewish people of color in leadership. “We still have to work to help diverse voices thrive while they are in rabbinical school; thrive in their jobs. Many organizations that are progressive hire Jewish people of color, but then they don’t create systems of support when their people experience racism and sexism,” she said.

The 2020 Pew survey also noted other areas of increasing diversity among American Jews, including ethnic diversity, Jewish heritage, geographic origin, sexual orientation, and economic well-being. Lead researcher Alper said, “I think it is interesting to see the myriad identities, experiences and circumstances that combine to create U.S Jewry, by many measures.” While she notes that “American Jews are not a monolithic group,” she says that their identity as Jews is very important to them, with the survey finding that “more than eight-in-ten U.S. Jews say that they feel at least some sense of belonging to the Jewish people, and three-quarters say that ‘being Jewish’ is either very or somewhat important to them.”

For Michaela Brown, a rabbinical student in her second year of study at Hebrew College, a large pluralist Jewish seminary in suburban Boston, her Jewish identity has always played a central role in her life. As a young queer person, deeply invested in her faith, Brown carefully considered all options before settling on Hebrew College as her rabbinical school of choice. “I wanted to make sure that the place I will spend the next 5 years of my life studying reflects my values,” she said. “Hebrew College has a visibly queer student body and lots of queer alumni as well as a queer faculty member.”*

Among rabbinical students at the school, she estimates that there are dozens of students who identify as members of the LGBTQI community. “Seeing that you will not be the first person who brings your same gender partner to an event, knowing that there are a lot of non-binary folks at Hebrew College, and a normative culture around sharing your pronouns helps people seeking out a supportive rabbinical school that makes them feel comfortable,” she said. “This is especially important for prospective students—to know that they will not be the first ones to attend.”

This reality—of being able to be open about one’s sexual preferences while occupying prestigious religious leadership positions—is not something Brown takes for granted. “I am extremely grateful to the queer folk who came before me to this rabbinical school,” she said. Brown thinks a career in the rabbinate will help her establish a platform from which she can help further change. “For a lot of us, we are invested in changing the power structure. If we as feminists and as queer folk want to topple the patriarchy, we need to democratise what Jewish leadership looks like. It cannot all be elite white cisgender men,” she said.

While the demographics are shifting, attempting to change some of the inherent assumptions about who is a rabbi can still be challenging.

Rabbanit Leah Sarna, a 2018 graduate of Yeshivat Maharat, has often faced questions from people who remain unsure about the motivations and driving factors for people like her, who represent the new and emerging faces to join the American rabbinate.

“Sometimes people come in with this assumption that if you’re doing something new, you’re destroying the tradition,” Sarna said. She has worked hard to win over some of her detractors and show them that her presence and leadership does not have sinister motivations. “When you prove that you are doing it because you care and you want to be part of the tradition, I have seen success,” she said, adding that personal interactions have the biggest impact.

While Sarna had the example set for Orthodox female leadership by Hurwitz just over a decade ago, she has her eye on some areas that she would like to see continue to improve. “Although there are now tens of orthodox female clergy, after ordination, there is still a hard ceiling for women’s Torah education,” she said. “Those who are truly excellent scholars, there is nowhere to go.” According to Sarna, in Orthodox men’s circles, the exceptional scholars will sometimes stay for an extra decade of studying and finessing their learning techniques, an equivalent to an academic who continues their research even after their PhD.

“Unfortunately, among women I can only think of two or three women on the planet that would be as learned as some of these men,” Sarna said. “These women studied alone and that’s so sad and ridiculous; in similar circles, the men who sit for this many years studying Torah are supported, and people fight to be in their presence.”

But Sarna is not giving up so quickly, believing that the changes she has seen in the past decade to be indicative of bigger things yet to come. “A program in Israel called Drisha just opened up a curriculum that will allow women to sit and continue to study even after their rabbinical ordination so they can remain studying to become truly excellent experts in Jewish law,” she said. “This program is just beginning, but I am excited for what the future will hold.”

Nomi Kaltmann is an Australian lawyer who freelances as a journalist, with her work most often appearing in Tablet magazine.

*Correction: This sentence has been updated to correct the name of the school. It is Hebrew College, not Hebrew Union College.