On May 12, 1985 Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement.
Since the early 1970s, leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) had engaged in serious discussions and vitriolic debates about women’s position in Judaism. Hastened by the Reform movement’s decision to ordain Sally Jane Priesand in 1972, members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the central organization of Conservative rabbis, initiated exploratory studies about Jewish legal attitudes toward women’s ordination. Gerson Cohen, chancellor of JTS from 1972-1986, became an active proponent of the admission of women into rabbinical programs after reviewing the conclusions of one study conducted in the late 1970s. In October 1983, shortly after the death of Rabbi Saul Lieberman, who had been an indomitable force against women’s ordination, the faculty of JTS voted to allow women to enter their rabbinical school.
Amy Eilberg was among the first group of women who immediately signed up for classes in the rabbinical school in the fall of 1984. Eilberg grew up in Philadelphia and knew from a young age that she wanted to follow the model of her parents and devote her life to public service. Her father, Joshua Eilberg, was a Democratic Representative from Pennsylvania and her mother, Gladys, was a social worker.
Eilberg’s interest in Judaism was cultivated during her adolescence. Her parents were not particularly observant, but when Eilberg was fourteen, she convinced them to follow the dietary laws of kashrut. In high school, Eilberg was involved in the United Synagogue Youth (USY) organization—the Conservative movement’s youth group—and later she became a counselor at Camp Ramah, also run by the Conservative movement.
Eilberg attended Brandeis University and continued to pursue her interest in Judaism. Not only did she major in Jewish Studies, but she also became an active member in the campus Hillel. During her freshman year, she heard about the first National Jewish Women’s Conference that took place in New York City. A friend related to her that Rachel Adler, a Jewish feminist, had davened (prayed), and donned a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). Eilberg was invigorated by the idea of women taking on the traditional male commandments and, for the first time, contemplated the idea of becoming a rabbi. While at Brandeis she learned how to read the Torah and put on tefillin as she explored her relationship to Jewish ritual.
In 1976 she graduated from Brandeis and enrolled at JTS to do graduate work in Talmud. After receiving her masters degree, she taught at Midreshet Yerushalayim, an intensive training school run by JTS in Israel. When she found out that JTS had tabled the question of women’s ordination in 1979, she was disappointed but decided that she would continue to weave together her own program to prepare herself for the rabbinate. She enrolled in a social work program at Smith College and in 1984 received her masters of social work.
Her self-directed training had not been in vain. When she was admitted to JTS in the fall of 1984, she was assessed to need only one more year of education prior to being ordained. In May 1985, at the age of thirty, Eilberg received her ordination amidst the fanfare of photographers and television cameras. The historic event was recorded in newspapers and television news programs across the nation. Eilberg offered a final prayer to her class on commencement day: “The years of struggle, of pain and of exclusion are at an end. Our movement faces a new beginning, a new era of equality and vitality, and a beginning of a healing process that will bring us all to a new kind of unity, in which we all may be included and to which all must contribute.” Her joy was shared by Gerson Cohen, the chancellor of JTS, who had earlier joked, “People are knocking on my door and saying, ‘Mazel Tov.’”
Eilberg started her career as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis and then became the assistant rabbi at a synagogue. In 1989, she stepped down from that position, and in her resignation letter explained that her desire to spend more time with her daughter was one of the primary motivations for her decision. She also realized that her true passion was for chaplaincy work. She co-founded the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco and devoted her energy to understanding Jewish ways of healing and helping the sick. Over her years of working with the sick, she has concluded that chaplaincy work is particularly well suited for women because it taps into their nurturing abilities.
In 1995 Eilberg left the San Francisco Center and married Louis Newman, a professor of religion and Judaic Studies from St. Paul, Minnesota. Eilberg had previously been married to Howard Schwartz. She has one daughter, Penina, from her first marriage (b. 1986) and two stepsons, Etan (b. 1986) and Jonah (b. 1989). Currently, Eilberg lives in Palo Alto, California where she serves as a pastoral counselor to help people discover and deepen their relationship with God. She also teaches spiritual direction, Jewish healing and Jewish spirituality in a number of different settings. Eilberg has continued her involvement with Bikkur Holim (services for the sick) and in 1998 she helped create a post-abortion ritual.
For some, the decision of the Conservative movement to ordain women was symbolic of a new era of gender equality and thus an understanding that men and women should not be perceived as different based upon their sex. Eilberg, however, believes that gender neutrality or gender blindness is the wrong path for the Conservative movement to follow. Her hope is that instead of effacing the differences between men and women, the Conservative movement will “recognize the different needs of women rabbis.” Her commitment to valuing gender difference has been a prominent theme throughout her rabbinical career. Not surprisingly, when she delivered her senior sermon at JTS, the first ever given by a woman, she found her own views echoed in the lines of Exodus, describing the unique contributions that women brought to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 35:22-29). Eilberg believes that as a woman she too brings unique gifts to Judaism.
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A comprehensive history of women’s efforts to become part of Jewish leadership, particularly through joining the rabbinate from 1885-1985. Traces the key debates within Jewish movements and shows how those debates were located in specific historical moments as well as ideological milieus. Places Eilberg’s life in a broader discussion about women who brought the question of female ordination to the forefront of Jewish discussions.
Wenger, Beth. “The Politics of Women’s Ordination: Jewish Law, Institutional Power and Debate over Women in the Rabbinate.” In Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, vol 2. ed. Jack Wertheimer. New York: 1997.