Sue Levi Elwell
Annette Berman was an active member of an Orthodox synagogue in West Los Angeles. When she learned that she could study Talmud with other women who had never had the opportunity to study classical Jewish texts, she eagerly enrolled in “Talmud for Beginners,” offered by the LA Jewish Feminist Center. A veteran of many adult education courses, Annette knew herself to be an eager student, but she often felt that she was forever walking along the beach, never truly entering the water of serious text study.
When she sat down in the chapel of the Reform synagogue where her Talmud class would take place, she knew that she had entered a new world of Jewish study. The room was filled with women of all ages, buzzing with excitement about the classes that began that night: Introduction to Jewish Feminism, Jewish Parenting, Introduction to Jewish Mysticism, and Talmud for Beginners. She was intrigued by the grace of Rachel Adler, who would be her instructor. Annette returned home that night with her mind ablaze and her heart pounding with excitement. A new Jewish door was opening for her.
After studying with Professor Adler in the Jewish Feminist Institute for three years, Annette decided that she would celebrate her 60th birthday with a celebration of her learning. She approached her rabbi and asked him about becoming a bat mitzvah in a special, all women’s service. Annette’s request was denied.
On Shabbat Vayakhel, March 5, 1994, Annette was called to the Torah for the first time at a women’s minyan that she had arranged. Over 100 women gathered at a hotel down the street from Annette’s home synagogue. The service was led by Annette, Rachel Adler, and Rabbis Sue Levi Elwell and Laura Geller, the co-founders of the Jewish Feminist Center; and participants included members of Annette’s class, relatives, and many friends. More than a dozen women participated in the Torah service for the first time in their lives.
In the years that I directed the Feminist Center, I had the honor to accompany scores of women on their Jewish journeys through study, participating in our monthly Rosh Hodesh (new moon) celebrations, planning and executing life cycle celebrations, which often included a visit to the mikveh (ritual bath), and more. We assembled an extraordinary collection of Jewish scholars and teachers who welcomed women home. Our work in the LA Jewish community challenged and changed the way that many synagogues, schools, and Jewish institutions and agencies regarded and treated women, increasing the acknowledgment of and respect for Jewish women’s contributions, wisdom, and power.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell has been teaching and writing about Jewish women’s history and feminist spirituality for the past 20 years. The Founding Director of the American Jewish Congress Feminist Center in Los Angeles, Elwell served as the first rabbinic Director of : The Jewish Women’s Project of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. She has served congregations in California, New Jersey, and Virginia, and worked as rabbi and chaplain of Beit T’Shuvah, a residential program for Jewish felons and other recovering addicts. Elwell is the editor of The Open Door, the new CCAR Haggadah (2002), and served as one of the editors of the acclaimed The Journey Continues: The Haggadah (1997). Elwell served as editor, with Rebecca Alpert and Shirley Idelson, of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation (Rutgers University Press, 2001) and authored The Jewish Women's Studies Guide (1987). Elwell is the mother of two adult daughters and lives in Philadelphia with her partner, Nurit Levi Shein.
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