Amy Eilberg was the first woman ordained as a rabbi by the Conservative movement, in 1985. Her ordination was the culmination of years of advocacy by Jewish feminists, and vigorous, and often contentious, debate. Early on Eilberg recognized her affinity for chaplaincy work and focused on Jewish healing and consolation, pursuing a rabbinic path outside of a congregational setting. Over the years she expanded her areas of interest, serving as a spiritual director, kindness coach, and peace and justice educator. Eilberg is involved in interfaith social justice work and is a supporter of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. She is a contributing author to numerous works related to Jewish approaches to healing and is the author of From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace.
First Female Conservative Rabbi
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 contentious debates about women’s position in Judaism. Hastened by the Reform movement’s decision to ordain Sally Jane Priesand in 1972, and pressure from Ezrat Nashim (a group of Jewish feminist activists), members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the central organization of Conservative rabbis, passed a resolution in 1977 urging JTS to study the options for ordaining women in the Conservative movement. Gerson Cohen, chancellor of JTS from 1972-1986established a Committee for the Study of Ordination of Women, which held hearings on the topic with Conservative laity and leadership throughout the country, in addition to engaging seminary faculty to study the issue in relation to Jewish law. Cohen became an active proponent of the admission of women into the rabbinical program, and in October 1983, shortly after the death of Rabbi Saul Lieberman, who had strongly opposed women’s ordination, the faculty of JTS voted to allow women to enter their rabbinical school.
The Road to the Rabbinate
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. Eilberg was involved in the United Synagogue Youth (USY) organization—the Conservative movement’s youth group—during high school. After participating in a USY summer program, she convinced her family to follow the dietary laws of The Jewish dietary laws delineating the permissible types of food and methods of their preparation.kashrut, although her parents were not particularly observant. She later 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, and she was told that at that conference 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, while at Brandeis, learned how to read the Torah and put on tefillin. With the encouragement of her campus rabbi, Eilberg began to contemplate the idea of becoming a rabbi.
In 1976, Eilberg graduated from Brandeis and enrolled at JTS to do graduate work in Talmud. After receiving her master’s degree, she taught at Midreshet Yerushalayim, a Conservative yeshiva (school for advanced Judaic study) 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. After completing the coursework for a PhD in Talmud, she enrolled in a social work program at Smith College, and in 1984 received her Master of Social Work degree.
Eilberg’s 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 30, Eilberg received her ordination amidst the fanfare of photographers and television cameras; the historic event was covered by news media across the nation. At the commencement ceremony, Eilberg offered a final prayer on behalf of her class: “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.’” Upon ordination, Eilberg became the first woman admitted to membership in the Rabbinical Assembly.
A Multi-Faceted Career
Eilberg started her career as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and then became the assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple in suburban Philadelphia. After stepping down from that position in 1989, in part to spend more time with her toddler, she realized that her true passion was for chaplaincy work. She worked for a year at a Philadelphia-based Jewish hospice, and then helped to cofound the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, with which she was affiliated through 1996—devoting her energy to exploring Jewish ways of healing and helping the dying and bereaved. In the ensuing years, Eilberg worked nationally as a teacher, trainer, and writer on issues related to Jewish healing, hospice, and spirituality; in 1998 she helped create a post-abortion ritual.
Around the year 2000, Eilberg was drawn to the practice of spiritual direction, a contemplative listening practice through which directors provide a safe space for seekers to explore the sacred in their lives. With origins in Roman Catholic practice, it has more recently been adapted for use in the Jewish community. In her home of Palo Alto, CA, as a Jewish Spiritual Director and a founding co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction, she helps individuals seeking to deepen their spiritual lives. From 2002 to 2006 she co-directed the Morei Derekh Training Program for Jewish Spiritual Directors.
An early encounter in 2004 with Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salaam, an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue center, inspired Eilberg to dedicate her efforts to the cause of peace through interfaith work and intra-Jewish dialogue. This led to the publication of a book on the topic of Jewish civil discourse, From Enemy to Friend: Jewish Wisdom and the Pursuit of Peace, in which she explores dialogue, conflict resolution, and peacemaking from the perspective of Jewish texts and tradition.
Eilberg has also directed her efforts toward social justice issues and has served as the Coordinator of Jewish Engagement for Faith in Action Bay Area. She currently serves as a teacher and lecturer on social justice, civil discourse, and spiritual development, and as a kindness coach. She was granted a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in 2016.
In 1996 Eilberg married Louis Newman, a professor of religion and Judaic Studies from St. Paul, MN. 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).
Women in the Rabbinate
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, opposes the type of gender neutrality that blinds the movement’s leadership to the particular challenges that are still faced by women rabbis. 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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