Gabai’s father, Yosef, the chief Sephardic rabbi of northern Israel, had recently died, and she long had yearned to be a rabbi herself. But rabbinical school simply wasn’t an option for women in her family, which claims a lineage of Orthodox rabbis going back to the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. So Gabai put her dream on hold.
But she never gave up entirely. And last Sunday, Gabai, 47, of Berkeley, Calif., achieved her seemingly impossible dream when she was ordained a rabbi by the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, a trans-denominational school in Los Angeles.
“I am so excited, overwhelmed,” she told the Forward after the ceremonies, beaming through the afternoon haze in a courtyard of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. A dozen 8th-grade students from the Tehiya Day School, the Berkeley-area day school where she teaches, attended the festivities; so did several colleagues and friends from the Bay Area, many of whom flew down or drove some 400 miles for the occasion.
Except for her three grown children, however, none of Gabai’s family attended the ordination. The Israeli-born Gabai is the youngest of nine, and all her siblings and their children still live in Israel — including seven nephews who are Orthodox rabbis. Some family members — especially her older brother, who is also an Orthodox rabbi — are having a hard time accepting the family’s first female rabbi. “There are those who are excited for me and others who think I’m crazy,” she said. “My older brother is happy I studied, but doesn’t like the idea of my doing things like performing weddings or leading services.”
Gabai accepts her siblings’ mixed reactions, and during the ordination ceremony she imagined her parents’ response. “For a moment, I felt like my parents were looking over me and smiling — and at other times that they were puzzled,” Gabai said in Israeli-accented English. “I found myself thinking, ‘Aba, I told you I would follow after you.’”
It has been a long journey for Gabai. She knew from a very young age that she wanted her father’s job. “I admired the way he interacted with people, how he listened to what was in their hearts and always had the right words to say,” she explained. “People would come to our house to study, so there was a platform where my father stood and taught. I would grab my father’s tallit, hat and glasses, get up on the platform and say, ‘Now you are going to listen to mydrasha,’” or interpretive reading.
Gabai was allowed to study Torah in a school with both boys and girls, yet there were limits to what her father would encourage. “When I would tell him that I wanted to be a rabbi just like him, he would gently say, ‘You would probably make a great rabbi, but it’s not possible for women. Rabbi, teacher — it’s the same thing.’”
So Gabai received teaching credentials and a degree in Bible and Jewish history from the University of Haifa. There she met her now-former husband, and the couple moved to the San Francisco area. He pursued graduate studies in psychology, and she began a 26-year career in Jewish education, while they raised a family. But, Gabai said, there was still something missing.
“I saw my kids growing up, and I thought, ‘It’s time for me to pursue my dreams,’” Gabai said. “When I heard about the Academy [for Jewish Religion, California] opening in 2000, I was one of the first students to enroll. I didn’t care that I would be flying down every week to L.A., studying all night for three years, taking classes in the summer and giving up all my free time and social life, while continuing to hold down a full-time job.” She, like many of her rabbinic and cantorial classmates at the academy, could undertake the training in part because of a structure that concentrates classes into a couple of days per week for its students who live out of town and already have other careers.
Gail Tayback, a teacher at the Tehiya Day School, where Gabai has been on staff since 1989, said that at times she saw the strain on her friend but always encouraged her to continue because she was “born to be a rabbi.” For years, Gabai has been informally playing the role of rabbi to families and staff of the day school, preparing their children for and officiating at their bar and bat mitzvahs. Tayback said Gabai has “the ability to communicate the joy and importance of Judaism in our lives. She is a great storyteller and never misses an opportunity to teach.
“For example, at Chanukah the students help her make a Moroccan-style, deep-fried doughnut. While cooking, she’s telling stories from the Talmud. If the oil splatters onto a student, she has a story about that. If a doughnut falls on the floor, there’s a story related to that. She’s just a teaching machine,” Tayback said.
Gabai will continue her teaching and administrative duties at the school, but will gain the title of rabbi. Her next goal is to start the first “egalitarian-traditional” Sephardic synagogue in the Bay Area.
In the meantime, she will celebrate her accomplishment and then take a vacation in Israel. “I’m going to visit my family, but I’m not going to boast about my ordination,” she said.
“I will give them a book of prayers and a CD of songs for Kol Nidre that I created. The book is called ‘Zohar Israel,’ after my mother, Zohara, whose name means ‘brilliant.’ She was a shining light in my life, a strong woman who taught me to stand on my own two feet and say what I think.”