The Evolution of the Female Rabbi

The play’s actresses pay tribute to 18 female rabbis at different stages of life. (Photo provided by Bari Hochwald)

In a new show coming to the Gordon Center for Performing Arts this month, actresses will share the struggles, joys, accomplishments and losses of Los Angeles’ pioneering female rabbis.

Written by Rabbi Lynne A. Kern and Ronda Spinak, “Stories from the Fringe: Women Rabbis, Revealed!” shares the voices of 18 female rabbis at different stages of life through this play in which three actresses pay tribute to these trailblazers of the rabbinical field. The play, which is co-presented by the Strand Theater Company, comes to the Gordon on Thursday, March 30 at 7:30 p.m. in the Morstein Performa.

Bari Hochwald, artistic director and president of The Global Theatre Project is responsible for bringing the show to Baltimore. “The piece was originally created from interviews of female rabbis with the intention of making a documentary, but the stories were so compelling that it made sense to turn the presentation into theater,” she said. “I felt when I moved to Baltimore that there is such a strong Jewish community here, and in a time when the voice of women is a very important conversation, the piece needs to be performed.”

Hochwald explained that each actress represents very specific rabbis, who remain unnamed due to the intimate nature of the play. “The process of breaking new ground reveals moments of difficulty and deep self-reflection, and the stories are extraordinarily honest.”

Each actress represent a different generation of these ceiling-breaking rabbis. One represents the oldest generation, who were responsible for breaking into the field. The mid-career rabbi is also a trailblazer, but not the first, and further opens the door for other women. Finally, the younger generation is represented; it continues to push to the edges of the field but can do so without having to constantly prove their value as did the rabbis before them.

“It sets up very interesting conversations from both a Jewish and cultural perspective about the values of women,” said Hochwald. “I think it is an important time to celebrate the contributions and voices of women in all aspects of life. Other than an intriguing and entertaining night in the theater, I think people will learn things about the women’s role in Judaism.”

The Baltimore Jewish Council will also be hosting a pre-show dinner and post-show discussion with Baltimore-area female rabbis, including Rabbi Jessy Gross, JCC senior director of Jewish learning and life; Rabbi Dana Saroken of Beth El Congregation; Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; and Rabbi Gila Ruskin of Temple Adas Shalom. The event is part of the ongoing interfaith trialogue series that aims to push people out of their comfort zones so that they can learn more about the other faith communities in Baltimore.

According to Madeline Suggs, director of public affairs at the BJC, “Each program features a get-together of Christian, Jewish and Muslim participants, where they get to know each other, tour the space and engage in some sort of program. This time, they will gather for dinner, learn about Judaism and the JCC from Rabbi Jessy Gross and then watch the show together.”

Ruskin shared that she feels that her experiences and those of her peers are accurately reflected in the play.

“Each of us came from a different background. We were all coming into the rabbinate at a different time in history,” she said. “When I was ordained in 1983, female rabbis were still very new, and the challenges that I faced were very different from what the younger women have dealt with, although we do have some of the same challenges — with being respected as equally as males in situations such as officiating at funerals and with a wage gap.”

The panel of rabbis who will speak following the program hope to engage audience members in their own personal stories.

“For me,” said Gross, “I would be so excited to see as many people in the audience who are not sure about how they feel about women rabbis as there are people who see their rabbis in the room. Today, it is important to explore the role of women as rabbis and leaders in spaces that were once male, examine the changes and challenges and see for yourself some of those issues.”

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