Second rabba in U.S. the start of a new trend

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When Kaya Stern-Kaufman was ordained three months ago, her certificate looked different from those of other newly minted rabbis across the country. It included the English title “rabbi” and the Hebrew title “rabba.”

Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman

Stern-Kaufman, who was ordained by the pluralistic Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale, N.Y., became just the second woman in the United States to be given the title rabba. She followed the lead of Rabba Sara Hurwitz of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.

Stern-Kaufman lives with her husband and two teenage children in Great Barrington, Ma., where she volunteers as the chaplain at Fairview Hospital (Great Barrington is in the far western part of Massachusetts, 136 miles from Boston but less than 15 miles from both the New York and Connecticut borders).

She is also working as a community rabbi, doing projects such as interfaith work, teaching classes and setting up a chevra kadisha (burial society) and serving as a leader at an independent minyan. She is also working on her book, “Between Heaven and Earth: Re-envisioning Synagogue Space,” which explores the architecture of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle).

At her ordination, she said she expected most people would call her rabbi — but that hasn’t happened. She uses the title “rabba” in all of her Jewish connections and Jewish work.

“It is only in interfaith settings, where the title ‘rabba’ is not understood, that I am using ‘rabbi’ so that I can be easily identified,” noted Stern-Kaufman, whose grandfather was a seventh generation Orthodox rabbi.

Some members of the Academy of Jewish Religion’s 2010 ordination class asked the school to bestow them with the title rabba after Hurwitz was given that title in January 2010. However, instead of making a decision right away, Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and academic dean of the 55-year-old academy, said the staff spent a year studying the matter.

Horn Prouser spoke with non-Orthodox rabbinical schools in the United States, but she found that none was even considering giving out the title rabba.

She did find, though, that it was a hot topic in Israel. She noted that the Academy of Hebrew Language in Israel accepted in 2010 the word rabba as part of the Hebrew language.

“Rabba is an up and coming title in Israel for liberal women rabbis,” Horn Prouser said. “Anyone I talked to in Israel said, ‘Oh yes, I know rabba so and so.’ ”

She said the school decided to give people the choice of taking on the title rabba, as doing so was in line with its pluralism.

Stern-Kaufman, 47, was the only one of the seven women in her ordination class to take on the title rabba. She emphasized that the choice was personal, noting that many students in her school wanted the title rabbi because it signifies equality with their male counterparts.

Stern-Kaufman, who calls herself a pluralist instead of identifying with a denomination, said she was inspired by Hurwitz, though she was well aware of the differences in their respective communities.

Beyond sharing a title and both being ordained in Riverdale, the two rabbas have little in common. Stern-Kaufman was ordained in a class of seven women and five men. Hurwitz is working in a denomination where many do not believe women should be rabbis.

After Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale ordained Hurwitz with the title maharat in June 2009, and then changed her title to rabba in January 2010, the two were rebuked by both traditional and modern Orthodox leaders. As a result, Weiss is no longer giving out the title rabba.

While Hurwitz’s new title sparked the discussion at the Academy of Jewish Religion, Prouser said Hurwitz’s experiences had little to do with the school’s decision to give out the title rabba.

“We did not look at this decision as supporting or rejecting what she did,” Prouser said. “We focused more on liberal movements, and, if anything, it was all the controversy surrounding Rabba Hurwitz’s being given that title last year that kept us from wanting to enter those waters until things had settled down.”

Rabbi Elaine Zecher, the first female rabbi in Reform Temple Israel of Boston’s 153- year history, said she does not think Stern-Kaufman’s title is “controversial or a big deal.”

“There are people who take on different titles as a religious leader, rebbe, reb. There are multiple titles out there,” she said. “She will have to decide what that name represents to her and what assumptions people will make.”

While Stern-Kaufman’s feminized title did put her in the spotlight, her work as a rabbi does not center on women’s issues. A social worker and a feng shui consultant before deciding to become a rabbi, she is focusing on outreach to unaffiliated Jews and bridging the denominations of Judaism. She is also a founder and member of the traditional egalitarian Berkshire Minyan.

She likened herself to Hurwitz in that both are “standing up for the right of Jewish women to be spiritual leaders in their communities.”

This article originally appeared in the Boston Jewish Advocate. To read more, please go to www.thejewishadvocate.com.