When Rabbi Capers Funnye was inaugurated to the role of Chief Rabbi of his Hebrew Israelite community, he laid out dramatic plans.
One of his “highest goals” as leader of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, he said, would be to admit women into the organization’s rabbinical academy, and allow women to serve on the rabbinical board — both of which would be two major changes.
Last week, at the Board’s national convention in Atlanta, members discussed the topic. From August 4 through 6, members of the Board gathered in a hotel near the airport and an Israelite congregation called Or-Ami for a weekend of prayer and meetings.
The next steps on the topic of female rabbis involves holding a rabbinical court, or beit din, to make a ruling as to whether such a move has legal justification. If the bit din approves, the proposal would then be voted on by the board, which is made up of rabbis who serve other Israelite congregations.
In a proposal posted on the Board’s website, Funnye called “to permit qualified female rabbis to join the Board” and for the Academy to ordain female rabbis through its rabbinical program. A separate post titled “Female Rabbis: Are We Ready?” invited community members to vote in a poll and comment below the article, though few have participated.
In the past, women have studied at the academy, but not in a program that leads to rabbinical ordination. Tamar Menassah, an anti-gun violence activist in Chicago whose public profile has been rising in the Jewish world, is currently a student there.
In January, the Israelite academy held a graduation ceremony for two new rabbis, both men.
In a phone interview, Rabbi Baruch Yehudah, the dean of the Israelite rabbinical academy said the community is taking the decision seriously. He said leadership discussed the topic at the national convention but have not set a date for the beit din.
“Some people think this is a mild issue, at least in these days and times,” Yehudah said “However, this would surely be a paradigm shift.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum .
Hebrew Israelite Group Considers Female Rabbis Question