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Mutiny In Milan: Meet Italy’s First Orthodox Woman Rabbi-To-Be

Miriam Camerini is the first Italian woman to enroll in an Orthodox rabbinical studies program in Israel.

She revealed it earlier this winter in an article she wrote for JOI (Jewish, Open & Inclusive) Magazine, an independent Jewish publication. The comments ensued: But, contrary to expectations, they were overwhelmingly positive. On social media, fellow Jewish Italian women congratulated Camerini. Someone wrote: “It reminds me of a beautiful movie with Barbra Streisand…”, referring to Yentl, the fictional character of a short story written by Isaac Bashevis Singer who pretended to be a man so that she could study in a yeshiva.

Unlike Yentl, Camerini won’t have to cut her hair short or wear a yarmulke. At Beit Midrash Har’el, Jerusalem’s first Orthodox yeshiva that ordains both male and female rabbis, she can freely pursue the rabbinical curriculum guided by a faculty of renowned scholars, such as Rabbi Herzl Hefter and Rabbi Daniel Sperber.

“It’s time for the Orthodox world to start educating and recognizing female rabbis,” says Camerini. “It’s not even a revolutionary idea, it’s a natural consequence of our times.” In addition to being a seasoned educator, Miriam Camerini is a theater director, writer, singer and actress. She’s worked in legendary venues like the Opera Theatre in Zürich and the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Born in Jerusalem, she was raised in Milan, a city that she dearly loves and calls “the only large Italian city resisting to the current political climate.” Nowadays, one could spot her riding her beloved bicycle around the streets of the city, as she hops from a show rehearsal to an interfaith panel discussion, and then off again to one of the popular bat-mitzvah classes she teaches weekly.

Miriam Camerini poses for Vogue Italy.

Miriam Camerini poses for Vogue Italy. Image by Vogue Italy

Although her wish to become a rabbi may seem obvious to those who’ve known her for years, Camerini—who just turned 36—told the Forward that the decision came after a series of events that took place over the course of one week a couple of winters ago.

First, a friend asked Camerini to help her prepare a dvar Torah for her to read at the synagogue in honor of her son’s first-time reading of the weekly haftarah. As they were learning together, Camerini realized how spontaneously she’d taken on the role of teacher.

Then, a drama troupe that was working on a play on religion asked her to come and answer their questions about Judaism. She joined them, and the conversation went on and on and on as they discussed theology and tradition. That same week, Camerini was invited to speak in a mosque about the sacrifice of Isaac.

Being called upon to teach — both inside and outside her community — helped Camerini realize that she wanted to study in-depth, so she could better meet this need.

Without having ever formally studied for it, one could say that Camerini is some sort of de-facto female rabbi in Milan. She teaches classes, prepares young women for their bat-mitzvah and speaks at interfaith events; she is a reference point both inside and outside her community. The decision to enroll in Rabbi Hefter’s Har’El rabbinical studies program seemed almost obvious. And it’s no wonder that Camerini is the first to do so.

According to some, Italy’s small Jewish community, much like many others in Europe, is falling behind in the evolution of Orthodoxy and the growing inclusion of women that is taking place in some more progressive environments in Israel and the United States.

Most Italian Jews are affiliated with Orthodox synagogues, though they are not particularly “Orthodox-practicing.” And to this day, the nation’s umbrella Jewish organization still does not recognize nor fund the small, emerging progressive communities.

And yet, the fight for acceptance of female rabbinical roles operating within the Orthodox framework is still a work in progress in Israel—where the Rabbinate still holds a religious monopoly—and in the United States, where the Rabbinical Council of America reiterated its position against ordaining female rabbis in 2015.

According to Orthodox halakha, women may study Torah, but they are barred from performing as religious judges and from testifying before a rabbinic court. Rabbi Pierpaolo Pinhas Punturello, originally from Naples and now based in Spain, believes that there is a necessity for female religious leaders in Orthodox communities today: “We need someone who can be also a religious advisor, not just a teacher.”

In a phone interview from Madrid, Punturello told the Forward he thinks that the restrictions related to women studying the sacred texts in an official capacity are “social, rather than religious.” In history, he explained, there have already been other changes that followed social context, such as the introduction of the bat mitzvah and the opening of Bais Yaakov schools for girls. “Twenty years ago, people discussed whether a woman could be a toenet rabbanit (female rabbinical advocate) for religious divorces. Now it’s an accepted reality.”

But Camerini wants to distance herself from any possible controversy.

“I don’t want this to become a political case,” she said. “I feel like, among Italian rabbis, there is a widespread feeling of ‘Let’s see what happens.’ They don’t have an extremely closed-minded and negative position about this specific issue. Or maybe it’s wishful thinking.”

Since she began the program, Camerini has been commuting between Milan and Jerusalem.

When she is in Milan, she listens to the recordings of the classes she misses to catch up. At home, many ask her what title she will adopt once she become a rabbi. The word rabbino in Italian is a masculine noun. “The more I think about it, the more I say that ‘rav’ is the best title,” she said. “It should be gender neutral.”

Camerini is still busy with her other initiatives, in addition to the publication of her first book, scheduled for the spring. The book—entitled Recipes and Precepts (Ricette e precetti)—is an illustrated collection of 45 short essays, each about a different food and its connection to a precept derived from either Judaism, Christianity or Islam.

But when she is in Jerusalem, Camerini fully immerses herself in the world of her yeshiva.

“After studying [Talmud] so intensively, I’ve noticed my way of thinking has changed, both in the way I study but also in my day-to-day life,” she said. “The Talmudic reasoning becomes a new filter through which you think. It’s like wearing a different type of glasses.”

Simone Somekh is a New York-based author and journalist. He’s lived and worked in Italy, Israel, and the United States. Follow him on Twitter @simonesomekh.


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