Woman bucks conventions as Israeli Reform rabbi

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Ordained in the Reform movement five years ago, Rabbi Maya Leibovich is still the only Israeli-born woman to lead a congregation in the Holy Land.

In the community of Leibovich's congregation, a suburb of Jerusalem called Mevasseret Zion, 40 Orthodox synagogues cater to a population of only 20,000.

Yet, "in none of them can women be part of the service," the rabbi said.

The Jerusalem resident visited San Francisco earlier this month as part of a U.S. fund-raising tour. Her campaign will help build a new synagogue and community center in Mevasseret Zion.

ARZA/World Union, North America — formerly known as the Association of Reform Zionists of America — sponsored her trip here.

Because she represents a growing movement toward female equality in Judaism, Leibovich has been asked to speak regularly at religious retreats for male Israeli soldiers.

The mostly Orthodox soldiers usually listen in silence to Leibovich as she explains her vision for the role of women in Jewish life.

"I tell them that Judaism has to change from within. Judaism means looking for a bridge between old and new," she said.

"No one is going to tell me, a modern woman, who has three degrees, that I have to sit at the back of the synagogue, that I, who was made in the image of God, was not intended to read the Torah, to touch the Torah and dance with it.

"There's nothing that you can say to convince me. I am ready to respect you for thinking that way, but you have to respect me for wanting to break through and to accept that."

During one of her talks, she related, a soldier with a kippah stood up and said, "I have to tell you, Rabbi Leibovich, that I agree with every word you say."

"That doesn't happen every day," the rabbi said lightheartedly.

Not everyone has been so open-minded about a woman rabbi and her progressive brand of Judaism. Usually, the army talks end in heated debate. And last year, an arsonist set fire to the synagogue's kindergarten. Among Israeli women, she gets two responses; either they enthusiastically support her or they say: "A rabbi? What do you mean a rabbi? Women are not rabbis," she said.

Leibovich is the first rabbi of a congregation that began as a small lay-led group seeking a more egalitarian style of worship. The group began to meet in homes for Friday night services. But as it grew, the members realized they needed a spiritual leader and teacher.

The two female founders of the group, emigres from South Africa and the United States, contacted Hebrew Union College seeking a rabbinical student to lead them. The school's administrators recommended Leibovich, who was at the time studying toward ordination.

"It was a match made," Leibovich recalled.

"We grow into 27 families very soon and it becomes very problematic to be praying towards the refrigerator or the toaster oven," she said with a heavy Israeli accent.

The group gained use of a school during off hours and, with its newfound space, decided to advertise for its first High Holy Days service.

"We have 100 people for the first High Holiday service, which gives us a big push and shows people that there is potential."

Today, Leibovich's congregation has its own building and has grown to 140 household members. All must pay dues, an anomaly for a population accustomed to the government subsidizing every Orthodox synagogue, she said.

Leibovich's synagogue is not the only Reform congregation in Israel. There are 19 others, but only five of them, including the Mevasseret Zion congregation, have facilities.

Two more Israeli women are preparing for a Reform ordination at HUC in Jerusalem, and the Masorti-Conservative movement has also ordained Israeli-born women.

In addition to her congregational work, Leibovich travels regularly to the former Soviet Union to teach Jews there about their spiritual tradition, which languished during the years of Communist rule.

The rabbi recently authored a special siddur that was published in Russian to be used by both emigres in her congregation and her followers in the former Soviet Union.

Leibovich, a mother of four, described herself as a passionate school teacher before she first approached administrators of HUC's small Israeli program. Surprised by her request for admission, the administrators agreed to take her on a one-year trial basis.

Leibovich thrived in the program. She was simply making up for lost time, she now says. Her parents, both Holocaust survivors from Czechoslovakia, turned their backs on their Orthodox backgrounds after the war. As a result, young Leibovitch grew up without religious observance in her Tel Aviv-area home.

"I was brought up like a tree without roots. I didn't have a grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, nothing. There was an unmentioned past," which included her spiritual heritage.

Yet even as a young girl, Leibovich craved a spiritual connection. She visited religious friends for Shabbat candlelightings and holidays. She once slipped away secretly in order to attend Yom Kippur services.

In college, she dated an Orthodox man, thinking she could forge a Jewish connection through marriage. The relationship didn't last but, when she later married another man, who was not Orthodox, she began a lifelong practice of observing Shabbat and keeping kashrut.

Still, her hunger for Jewish learning languished — until the day, years later, that an American woman rabbi moved to Israel.

"It was big news. In all the headlines," Leibovitch recalled. Coincidentally, Leibovich's husband was interviewing the same day for a new job in Jerusalem. He called her after the interview and suggested moving the family to Jerusalem so Leibovich could enroll in rabbinical school.

Her father died a year before Leibovich began her rabbinic studies. He had secretly returned to his faith in his last years — his family found a siddur and other religious paraphernalia stashed among his belongings.

Today, Leibovich said, she likes to think he would have been proud of her work in returning Judaism to Jews who have lost their way.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.