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MINNESOTA VOICES | Rabbi Amy Eilberg
By 1985, after both victories and failures, the American feminist movement was on the decline: Women’s studies departments and women’s centers had been established in most major universities. Support for the Equal Rights Amendment had flagged. Roe v. Wade was already a decade old. Middle-class women, including many young Jewish women entering college in the 70s and 80s, took it for granted that they could balance fulfilling careers with marriage and children.
But it wasn’t until 1985 that the first woman was ordained as a rabbi by Conservative Judaism, the branch that dominated American Jewish life during the 20th century. Rabbi Amy Eilberg was that first woman, and her career has continued to be one that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible in everyday life.
The Philadelphia-raised daughter of a lawyer father who served as a member of Congress and a social worker mother, Eilberg grew up surrounded by a passion for civic engagement. In her family, that value intersected with a deeply-held Jewish commitment to community service.
Given her family, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Eilberg was drawn toward becoming a rabbi. The Jewish Theological Seminary’s initial refusal to act on her application did not deter Eilberg: “I thought, they won’t make me a rabbi with a capital R, so I’ll put the training together myself, to approximate rabbinic training,” she recalls.
After completing her undergraduate degree at Brandeis, she settled for enrolling in a doctoral program at the seminary, a program that would have led her toward an academic career. But Eilberg isn’t the kind of woman who settles, and after a long period of feminist activism within the institution, she was finally ordained.
Rabbi Amy Eilberg is a kind woman, a good listener, and a subtle and deep thinker. She is now, more than two decades after her historic ordination, in a new phase of her work.
Her career as a rabbi has moved her from private to public, mirroring the move that religion itself made at the turn of the 21st century. In the middle of the 20th century, much of America’s religious life had moved underground: Jews, who wanted to duck discrimination, often took advantage of their ability to assimilate, keeping their religion private and their public lives secular. This trend was not confined to Jews. By the late years of the last century, many Americans stopped attending church, as well, or, at the very least, church was no longer the centerpiece of communal life.
Social progressives, including activists, educators, and social service providers, largely ceded religious territory and its language, values, and constituency to social conservatives. In the 1980s, in the San Francisco Bay area, Rabbi Eilberg helped to reclaim that territory, by bringing the practice of Jewish healing into a specifically Jewish response to the AIDS crisis.
Jewish healing is a form of pastoral care that uses Jewish religious practice and learning to offer comfort to a person experiencing grief, loss, and emotional pain. Rabbi Eilberg helped co-found America’s Jewish Healing Movement, out of the feeling that “offering comfort to the suffering person” is deeply sacred. (Other religious traditions, including Christianity and Buddhism, have similar practices.)
In the San Francisco Bay area, Rabbi Eilberg was on the leading edge of the Jewish Healing Movement. A few years ago, she relocated to a suburb of St. Paul, and she is again on the leading edge.
This time, though, her desire to be “deeply present for one human being at a time” has led her to interfaith dialogue and community building. Rabbi Eilberg talks about the Jewish mandate toward social justice as a “clarion call,” which she heeds through interfaith dialogue.
In the Twin Cities, “interfaith” used to mean Catholics and Protestants working together. Then it meant Christians and Jews. Now interfaith initiatives, including dialogue, prayer services, and joint political actions, reflect the presence of a significant local Muslim community, as well as the Minnesotans who practice Bahai’i, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu, Hmong, and many other religions.
Rabbi Eilberg applies her considerable pastoral skills to convene interfaith dialogue, particularly between Jews and Muslims—ground that’s rich with promise, but is also riddled with potential obstacles. She’s a leader both with Jewish Community Action and with Saint Paul Interfaith Network (SPIN), and she is affiliated with the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, all of which serve as springboards for her interfaith efforts and her commitment to social justice.
SPIN, an initiative of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches regularly hosts events with religious leaders and teachers. For the second year in a row, Rabbi Eilberg will lead SPIN’s Interfaith Passover Seder, at 4:30 p.m., Sunday, March 29th, at Mount Zion Temple. For more information about the Saint Paul Interfaith Network or the March 29th Interfaith Seder, go to spacc.org.
She also leads Jewish Community Action’s annual Immigrant Rights Freedom Seder, now in its seventh year. Nearly 200 people of varied backgrounds share experiences of immigration, exile, oppression, and freedom to build common social justice goals. This year, the seder will be 3:00 p.m., Sunday, March 22, at Mount Zion Temple, and it will highlight two JCA initiatives: Progress by Pesach (Passover), a Jewish call for an end to immigration raids, and Hekhsher Tzedek, a consumer effort to improve the working conditions in the kosher food industry. Rabbi Eilberg visited Postville, Iowa, in the wake of what was then the nation’s largest immigration raid.
Suzanne Bring works at Jewish Community Action.
©2009 Suzanne Bring