Descended from ten generations of rabbis, Rabbi Naamah Kelman overcame traditional gender roles to become the first woman ordained in her family. She devoted her adult life to making Hebrew Union College a “bridge that brings Reform Jews to active engagement with and concern for the Jewish people in Israel” and has also “inspired and shepherded Israeli Jews to become participants in the Jewish tradition.” Kelman has struggled to make Israel a place for equality, coexistence, justice, and healing for Israeli Jews and Palestinians alike. Her pioneering role as the first woman rabbi ordained in Israel and as a founder of liberal Jewish educational programs and institutions in the Jewish State have testified to a lifetime of creativity, feminist values, and ethical visions.
Rabbi Naamah Kelman has played a pioneering role in liberal religious as well as Jewish feminist, spiritual renewal, educational, and social justice circles in Israel for more than four decades. As the first woman rabbi ordained in the State of Israel and as the first woman Dean of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, she has garnered widespread attention as a leading activist and religious leader on the Israeli scene.
Early Life & Family
Naamah Katherine Kelman, the second of three children, was born in New York City on January 25, 1955. Her older brother Levi was born in 1953 and her younger sister Abigail in 1957. The Kelman household was a highly learned and religiously observant Jewish home. Their father, Wolfe Kelman (1923-1990), served as head of the Conservative Rabbinate in North America as Executive Vice-President of the Rabbinical Assembly and was the scion of more than ten generations of Hasidic and Orthodox rabbis. Their mother, Jacqueline (née Levy, 1923-2019), was the daughter of Rabbi Felix Levy of Chicago, a President of the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) who cast the decisive vote at the 1937 CCAR Convention on a resolution that reversed the anti-Zionist Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 and moved the Reform Movement onto a pro-Zionist course. Naamah was thus the product of a family with deep rabbinic and Zionist roots. It was a home, she later testified, where she learned that “the rabbi’s mission is to love the Jewish people and serve God—in that order—with Torah study, acts of Chesed (lovingkindness) for all humans, building the State of Israel as the means [to achieve these goals.” Kelman was taught to always look “for and cultivate sparks of [religious] renewal and [Jewish] rebirth” (Personal Reflection, p. 64).
This meant, Kelman later testified, that she was “‘trained’ from the earliest age to follow” in the “rabbinic footsteps” of her father. However, in keeping with dominant gender-assigned roles of those years, she did not receive the “totally explicit” message her brother did—“you will not break the rabbinic chain!” (Personal Reflection, pp. 64-65). Instead, “I was raised to marry a rabbi. That is what the women in my family did: both grandmothers, and my mother, and many of my aunts married rabbis” (Personal Reflection, p. 63). The traditionally gendered role assigned young girls at that time was brought home to her at her Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah in 1968. In a ceremony designed by her father, Kelman recalls that “a pretty dress [for her] to wear” was purchased and she chanted the Haftarah (the reading from the Prophets traditionally recited after the Torah reading in Sabbath morning services) for that Sabbath on a Friday night. Kelman recalled, “One prominent rabbi congratulated me but sternly informed me that this would be the first and last time I would be chanting haftarah in my life” (Personal Reflection, p. 63).
Despite these traditional gender role assignments, Kelman, at the 2012 Biennial of the Israeli Reform Movement in honor of the 40th Anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination as the first female rabbi in America, recalled that the feminist movement was in its nascent but fervent stages during her teenage years and that the movement influenced her greatly.
Moving to Israel
After Kelman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. and joint major in Urban Studies and Jewish Studies in 1976, her Jewish education as a youth, shaped by family and Camp Ramah, prompted her to move to Israel. Resolving to transform many of the country’s classical gender role definitions and religious and cultural realities, she immediately rejected the secular-religious (hiloni-dati) dichotomy that dominated Israeli society. Kelman believed, even then, that it was possible to be “a religious feminist.” She also affirmed the “revolutionary power of Jewish tradition” to change the world (In Honor of the 40th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women, p. 1). As one who regarded the “Zionist project as an opportunity for building a non-discriminatory society built upon a basis of equality” (40th Anniversary). Kelman allied herself with these forces in Israel “bent on creating such a society, one in keeping with the Jewish religious ideal of being “a light to the nations” (40th Anniversary), which would display “justice and kindness to the weak, to the stranger, and to those in need” (40th Anniversary, p. 2). From the moment of her immigration to Israel, Kelman sought out those elements in Israeli society that were devoted to “equality and justice” (40th Anniversary, p. 1). She saw community organizing as the professional and practical means to realize these ideals and soon enrolled in a degree program in Social Work from Bar Ilan University, where she was awarded a second Bachelor's in 1981.
In 1979, while a student at Bar Ilan, Kelman married Elan Ezrachi, a native Israeli and former pilot in the Israeli Air Force. Ezrachi later received a Ph.D. in Jewish Education and has long been involved in Israel-Diapsora connections, serving as founding Executive Director of Mifgashim (Encounters) and Masa Israel. A Jerusalem activist, Ezrachi currently teaches at Haifa University. The couple has three children, Leora, born in 1982, Michael, born in1985, and Daphna, born in 1988.
First Woman Ordained in Israel
Several years after her marriage to Ezrachi, Kelman “found the courage to embark on my rabbinic studies” (Personal Reflection, p. 65). The role model provided by American female/sing.; individual(s) who immigrates to Israel, i.e., "makes aliyah."olah Reform Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, the first woman to serve as a rabbi in the State of Israel, inspired and encouraged Kelman to follow suit. Given her background in the American Conservative movement, Kelman initially turned to Machon Schechter of the Israeli Masorti Movement for admission. However, at that time, in 1986, the Schechter Institute refused women entry into its rabbinic program. She therefore turned to the Rabbinical Program of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, where she was “completely embraced” (Personal Reflection). Kelman was ordained by HUC in 1992, the first woman ordained rabbi on Israeli soil. That same year, Kelman received an M.A. from the Institute for the Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, where she also later began doctoral studies in Sociology and Anthropology.
Hebrew Union College and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism
From the moment of her ordination, Kelman became involved in the work of Hebrew Union College and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ); even before her ordination, she held a wealth of educational positions in many sectors of Israeli society. From 1982 to 1986, she served at Hebrew University as Coordinator of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School at the Melton Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, and she was a teacher and head of Program Development for National Federation of Temple Youth Programs in Israel for American Reform teenagers. From 1993 to 1997, she was Director of the Department of Education of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.
In 1997, Kelman became Director of Educational Initiatives at HUC, a position she occupied for six years. From 1996 to 1999, she also coordinated the development of Beit Midrash - The Liberal Yeshivah for the Israeli public, and in 1998 she established the Pedagogic Center for Early Childhood Education at the College. Kelman became Director of the Year-in-Israel Program for all entering first-year HUC-JIR rabbinical, cantorial, and educational students in 2004 and remained head of that program until 2008. In that position, she was responsible for the educational formation of all North American and Diasporan HUC-JIR students as they embarked upon their careers of professional service to the Jewish people.
Kelman was also intimately involved during these years with HUC programs designed for the Israeli public. In 2005, she co-founded the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at the College and served as the co-supervisor and mentor of a novel program, Mezorim, which trained Israeli Reform rabbis and Israeli medical and health care professionals to serve as pastoral counselors in hospital and other settings. In so doing, Kelman introduced the role of chaplain to Israeli society. At the same time, she helped establish and was actively involved in a joint HUC-Hebrew University M.A. Program in Pluralistic Jewish Education, designed to promote the values of tolerance and pluralism among Jews and Arabs in Israeli schools.
Kelman’s service at HUC culminated in her appointment on July 1, 2009, as Dean of HUC-Jerusalem. She was the first woman to hold this position and has led the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR for more than a decade. Her appointment as successor to Michael Marmur, her colleague and close friend, who moved from the Deanship to become Provost of HUC-JIR in 2009, was a natural extension and recognition of her nearly two-decade-long leadership role at the College and the many successful iniatives that moved forward under her guidance.
Religious-Cultural and Feminist Projects
The vitality and competence that marked Kelman’s efforts within HUC were paralleled by her leadership roles in religious-cultural and feminist projects and organizations on the larger scene of Israeli spiritual and political renewal and reform. Beginning in 1986, she became involved with the Jerusalem Progressive School system (Gannai Chaim, Tali Bayit Vegan, and Tali Bait Chinuch) as a founding parent, school rabbi, and mentor. Kelman helped foster the growth of the IMPJ’s emerging educational system throughout Israel by overseeing the development of curricular materials, teacher training programs, and family education programs for Progressive and Masorti (Conservative) schools nationwide. Her influence in these educational circles increased through her service on the Boards of Melitz-Centers for Israeli-Jewish Education and the Tali Education Fund of the Seminary of Judaic Studies (Machon Schechter).
Kelman’s influence expanded beyond the realm of education and into the world of Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal in Israel through her participation in 1998 as a founding member of Panim, an umbrella organization that today coordinates the work of 60 organizations and their thousands of members active in Israeli cultural and communal activity. Her commitment to peace and justice for Israelis and Palestinians alike also finds expression in her membership in the Board of Rabbis for Human Rights, and she reamins deeply committed to interfaith dialogue as well. Kelman has also participated in numerous global interfaith gatherings, prominent among them the 2008 Global Women's Peace Summit in Jaipur, India. Her commitment to feminism and the promotion of gender equality in Israel has been felt through her work as a Board member of the Israel Woman’s Network, founded in 1984 with the aim of promoting a better society in Israel by promoting gender equality for women and creating social, physical, economic, and judicial conditions for their prosperity.
Rabbi Naamah Kelman has devoted her life to making Hebrew Union College a “bridge that brings Reform Jews to active engagement with and concern for the Jewish people in Israel” (Rabbi Naamah Kelman, HUC-JIR Website). She has also “inspired and shepherded Israeli Jews to become participants in the Jewish tradition” and has “fostered a Jerusalem that embraces the plurality of the Jewish experience” (Rabbi Naamah Kelman – HUC-JIR Website). Kelman has struggled to make Israel a place for equality, coexistence, justice, and healing for Israeli Jews and Palestinains and for men and women alike. Her pioneering role as the first woman rabbi ordained in the State of Israel and as a founder of liberal Jewish educational programs and institutions in the Jewish State have testified to a lifetime of creativity, vitality, and ethical visions. When she reached the 25th anniversary of her ordination as a rabbi, she was able to preside, as Dean, as she witnessed the ordination of her daughter Leora as rabbi at the Hebrew Union College, thus affirming the family and now feminist chain of rabbinic service to the Jewish people.
Selected Works by Naamah Kelman
"Traveling toward the Self While Visiting the Other." Journal of Jewish Communal Service (2001) 77:3-4 172-181. Co-authored with Lisa Grant and Hannah Regev.
"For Whom the Messiah will come.".Eretz Acheret 13 (December 2002), pp. 35-38 [Hebrew].
“Contemporary Reflection on V’zot Hab’rachah.” In Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn and Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: A Women's Commentary. New York: URJ Press, 2008, pp. 1286-1287.
“A Thirty-Year Perspective on Women and Israeli Feminism.” In Elyse Goldstein, ed., New Jewish Feminism: Probing the Past, Forging the Future, 197-205. Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 2009.
"First Fruits of the Season of Hope and Renewal." In Elliot J. Cosgrove, ed., Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations and Future of Jewish Belief, pp. 183-187 Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010.
"What Courage: The Daughters of Zelophehad," I: Henriette Dahan Kalev, Dafna Horev Betzalel, Eli Bareket, and Avigdor Shinan, eds., A-Mythical: Social Justice and Gender in Jewish Sources, pp. 200-207. Tel Aviv: Miskal, 2011. [Hebrew]
“In Honor of 40 Years of Women’s Ordination and 25 Years of Progressive Jewish Schools in Israel,” Typescript of Address Delivered to the Biennial of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (2012) [Hebrew]
“Personal Reflection: A First Rabbi, From A Long Line of Rabbis.” In Rebecca Einstein Schorr, Alysa Mendelson Graf, and Renee Edelman, eds., The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, pp. 63-66 New York CCAR Challenge and Change Series. New York, NY:CCAR Press, 2016.
“Halutzah, Midwife, Payatanit: Marcia Falk and Israeli Liturgy." In Marcia Falk, The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival, pp. 543-545 New York: Reform Judaism Publishing; Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2017. Co-authored with Dalia Marx.
“Rabbi Naamah Kelman.” HUC-JIR Website, accessed on September 21, 2020 at http://huc.edu/directory/rabbi-naamah-kelman