The woman at the center of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale’s historic Kabbalat Shabbat last week has made history before.
Lamelle Ryman, who became the first female — as far as is known — to lead the preliminary Friday evening service at an Orthodox synagogue in the United States, was the first woman, in 1996, to head the student government at Harvard University.
Ryman, an active member of the Hebrew Institute, is the founder of Journeymama.net, an online resource center for mothers and expectant mothers.
“I have been a full-time mama and whenever-I-can-squeeze-it-in writer since the birth of my first daughter in January 2005,” she writes on the Journeymama website. “We were blessed with our second daughter in October 2008.”
A doula-midwife and aspiring physician, violinist and songwriter, Ryman, who is in her 30s, helped Rabbi Avi Weiss found Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox institution based at the synagogue that gives Jewish women an advanced training in Jewish studies nearly comparable to the yeshiva education that Orthodox men traditionally receive.
“Yeshivat Maharat is a call to all those women who want to put their Torah scholarship into action, and ultimately pass it along and share it with others,” Ryman wrote recently on her blog. “Women who complete the rigorous training of Yeshivat Maharat will leave with a credential that establishes their qualifications as spiritual leaders. And it’s about time.”
A native of Illinois, she served as a White House intern and an intern for Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and worked on the staff of Sheila Kuehl, a progressive state senator from California. She was a Dorot Fellow in Israel and has studied at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan.
Ryman’s interest in birthing issues grew out of her early abortion activism.
“I was a teenage pro-choice fanatic,” she wrote in “Pro-Life, Pro-Choice, Pro-Healing: Both sides are falling short of the Jewish ideal,” a 2004 essay in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.
An aborted fetus is a “blob of tissue that is totally dependent on the woman’s body,” she told an older neighbor when she was a teen. “Lamelle, I was pregnant one and I had a miscarriage. And let me tell you, it was a baby,” the neighbor responded.
“I knew immediately that I had made a dreadful mistake, but it took me 10 years to figure out what it was,” Ryman wrote. “I had confused being pro-choice with being hostile toward pregnancy. I began to realize that the political climate had backed pro-choicers against a wall: They were so busy defending the right to choose, protecting clinics besieged by protestors and the occasional pro-lifer, that little space was left on the agenda for responding to the trauma of unplanned pregnancy.”