Amy Eilberg responds to womens grief Bay Area rabbi creates abortion ritual in manual

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A significant number of distraught women had approached Rabbi Amy Eilberg by the time she decided to compose grieving rituals for miscarriage and abortion.

The rituals were first rejected by her fellow Conservative rabbis a decade ago. But in 1990, a separate group of Conservative rabbis on a publications committee decided to include her abortion ritual in their updated rabbis' manual, "Moreh Derekh."

It took more than eight years to integrate her ideas with those of many rabbis. The manual, which never before included such a ritual, was published last month.

During the years that the ritual languished unpublished, "at least a dozen" more women turned to Eilberg for spiritual consolation after a miscarriage or an abortion, she said.

Some may have reached out to her because they felt more comfortable confiding a deeply personal experience to another woman. But the Palo Alto rabbi said others simply did not receive the kind of spiritual support they were seeking from their regular rabbis.

"Women told of feeling betrayed by their rabbis," said Eilberg, the first woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi who now works as an independent spiritual counselor.

Some of the rabbis were "well meaning but gave superficial responses — `Well, God-willing, you'll have became obvious to Freeman when an infertile couple came to him after adopting a child.

The couple was distressed because they couldn't find any relevant prayer in the standard liturgy and went to Freeman for spiritual support.

Freeman wanted to help but knew there were no guidelines for such a prayer in the rabbis' manual.

He drafted a prayer with the couple to acknowledge that "we all are imperfect and God is concerned with our well-being."

The couple recited the prayer "with friends and loved ones. That became a sacred moment to them," he said.

Similar prayers for infertility and adoption are now in the new manual, which was issued by the movement's rabbinic arm, known as the Rabbinical Assembly.

The new look of the manual mirrors the changing face of Conservative leadership.

Freeman singled out women's larger role in congregational life as an impetus for the change.

The prayers following an abortion, for example, were written by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, an independent spiritual counselor in Palo Alto. Ordained in 1985, Eilberg was the first woman to become a Conservative rabbi.

When she heard that a new rabbis' manual was under way, Eilberg wanted to ensure it "acknowledged women in the community in a prominent way, and included feminist concepts that weren't common" when the manual was last issued.

Freeman said he had to struggle with other rabbis to ensure the language of the manual would be gender-sensitive. Now, God is "Ruler," not "King. And "man" is replaced with "mortal."

He did not win all his battles. Freeman tried to include a prayer for a teen who has just received a driver's license. Other rabbis voted it out, saying it would dilute the seriousness of the manual.

But the rabbis did agree with Freeman on the need for a more personalized liturgy.

"Since we are no longer living in Jewish neighborhoods, Judaism has to be very internal," he said.

Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco Congregation Beth Sholom acknowledges that he has often had to improvise prayers for situations not in the previous guide.

Lew, for example, once counseled a woman who was about to undergo a hysterectomy.

"She was very upset and had been to psychological counseling but she felt she needed to deal with it spiritually," he said.

In situations such as those, Lew looked for help from prayers in the manual which address similar experiences.

Rabbis who are uncomfortable improvising will find the new manual helpful, he said, but "it's not going [to relieve] rabbis from coming up with creative solutions to ritualize moments not covered in the tradition."

Freeman noted the manual will be particularly useful for rabbis who work in remote areas.

"A lot of times, the rabbi is the only person there and needs a guide to help him through."

As is custom, Freeman had to defend the finished manual in front of the Rabbinical Assembly.

One colleague questioned Freeman's background. "He said to me, `Who are you to write a manual? You are not a poet or a liturgist.'"

Freeman said that's the point — no extraordinary training is necessary for a rabbi to be in tune with congregants' lives.

"I told him, `I'm the same as you, a pulpit rabbi.' The manual is not only a reflection of the Conservative rabbinate, it came from interactions with congregants. It is a reflection of our people."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.