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Forward 50 2017

Alissa Thomas-Newborn

The Barrier-Breaking Female Orthodox Rabbi

Alissa Thomas-Newborn grew up watching a woman lead services in synagogue: Her own mother, Didi Thomas, is the spiritual leader at Temple Emet, a Reform congregation in Torrance, California.

Over the years, Thomas-Newborn became Orthodox — but found herself searching for a way to serve as a female religious leader in her new Orthodox community.

After graduating from Brandeis University, she studied at Yeshivat Maharat, in Rabbi Avi Weiss’s female rabbinical training program, and was certified as a chaplain herself. In 2015 she joined B’nai David-Judea Congregation, in Los Angeles, as the first Orthodox Jewish female clergy member in California.

There, Thomas-Newborn, 28, delivers sermons, provides pastoral care and officiates lifecycle events — but is not counted toward a minyan, nor does she lead services or read publicly from the Torah.

In the community, she is called “Rabbanit,” a title she is proud of.

“It is a word with a history that touches on the leadership that women have always played in Judaism that they have given spiritually and interpersonally,” she said.

Thomas-Newborn has attracted controversy merely by virtue of her position, as Orthodox groups like the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union have ruled unequivocally against female clergy members.

But she has remained unperturbed. “My response,” she said, “is to continue teaching Torah and inspire others to connect to our mitzvot, to each other and to HaShem.”

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