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Rabbi A. Nitzan Stein Kokin 

 

General reflections

It is wonderful that we’ve come to half a century of women in the rabbinate in this country. I am forever grateful for the courageous women ahead of me in the clergy, who took on the task of introducing women into the profession, making it a normal thing! Pioneering work is tough and lonely and my generation of ordained rabbis already grew up with female role models! This is a big step.

One person, however, who was one of these pioneers in the more religious, modern Orthodox/traditional setting is often overlooked. The historic political circumstances made her almost disappear from history. I am talking about Rabbi Regina Jonas -- a very observant, almost Orthodox religious Jew -- who went to the Reform rabbinical seminary in Berlin. As a woman, she couldn’t study in the Orthodox seminary in the late ‘20s and ‘30s of the 20th century.

First, they would only award her a teaching license. However, she completed all requirements of rabbinical school parallel to the male rabbinical students. She was granted a private ordination by the head of the German Reform movement in 1935, after many congregations were orphaned since so many rabbis emigrated or were arrested and deported under the Nazi regime. She died in 1942 in Auschwitz.

She left her rabbinic thesis about “the question of ordination of women for the rabbinate” and documents attesting to her as rabbi, in the Jewish community’s archives in Berlin before she was deported. (I am sure she knew that her ordination was a historic milestone and wanted to leave a testimony behind even if she wouldn’t come back).

She worked side by side as rabbi, teacher and chaplain at Theresienstadt camp with such well-known men as Viktor Frankl and Rabbi Leo Baeck. Her documents ended up in the GDR/East Germany in an archive. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did a scholar interested in women’s leadership roles at the beginning of 20th century find out about her by accident, finding her letters and her thesis in the archive. 

So, while I am happy to acknowledge 50 years of women in the rabbinate in America, I do feel at the same time, that we should honor those predecessors of the ‘20s and ‘30s (in America as well), like Rabbi Regina Jonas, who went through rabbinical school much earlier, but were allowed to serve either without ordination or only with an “emergency ordination” like Jonas. In truth we are looking more at a history of about 100 years of women serving as “rabbis”/ or in clergy roles. 

You can find more details about Jonas in the Jewish women’s Archive under the link here:

https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/jonas-regina

Pamela Nadel also has written about the history of women almost in the rabbinate in “Women who would be rabbis” It’s a great resource for the history in this country. If you haven’t read it yet, it is a must-read. https://pamelanadell.com/books/

Challenges: Gender bias and equality

We are still catching up to the men in the profession (compensation, leadership roles, respect/authority etc.)

Our traditional sacred writings (Bible/Torah, Talmud, prayer book/siddur etc) have an androcentric patriarchal perspective. In Hebrew, it is very hard to formulate descriptions of or prayers to God, for example, in a non-binary or gender neutral way.  

In our traditional texts like the Talmud and rabbinic literature, the male voices are the standard voice, whereas the female voice is often the outsider. There are very few explicit women’s voices across the spectrum of our traditional Jewish law and literature. Even in liturgy women’s voices and authorship are still in the making.

Being a parent and a rabbi

One could compare a congregation to an extended family. There is always someone who needs you or would love your company more. There are logistics and relationships to take care of and one is there to nourish. Like a parent -- if you love your congregation -- it is easy to feel that you are never fully “off.” You open your home for Shabbat and holidays; you are there in people's joyous celebrations and walk with them through the darkness of loss and illness. So, sometimes for me it is very hard to draw a line and be there for my own personal family, when I have the congregational family to take care of. 

However, I’d like to say that many of my male colleagues, especially the ones my age or younger, have the same challenges. So, I don’t think I see the parenting aspect as a dividing issue between male and female rabbis. 

I do think the question of authority is one that is a bigger issue. I do think that female rabbis have to work harder and have to be more perfect in order to receive the same kind of compensation, to gain leadership roles and to be awarded the same kind of respect (authority) as our male colleagues. We are still catching up. (Not unlike in other professions in which women become more prevalent in leadership roles.)

Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El.