The number of women in America with the title “rabba” (female for rabbi) is poised to double next week.
The Academy of Jewish Religion in Riverdale, a 55-year-old pluralistic seminary, will bestow that title on Kaya Stern-Kaufman, 47, of Great Barrington, Mass., at a ceremony on May 12.
Avi Weiss, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, conferred the same title last year on Sara Hurwitz, who studied for three years at the Drisha Institute and five years with Rabbi Weiss.
Stern-Kaufman said she follows seven generations of Orthodox rabbis in her family and felt “uncomfortable” with the prospect of having the same title they held — “rav” (rabbi) — conferred upon her.
“It is a masculine term that has been used for 2,000 years to describe a male rabbi,” she explained. “It’s important for me to be acknowledged for the contribution I hope to make as a woman rabbi.”
Married and the mother of two teenagers, the rabbinate will be Stern-Kaufman’s third career following stints as a clinical social worker and as a Feng Shui consultant in architecture and interior designing. But throughout those careers she worked part-time as a Jewish educator. Her strong Jewish background enabled her to complete the five-year seminary program in four years.
Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the academy, said a few of last year’s graduates had asked to be ordained with the title of “rabba” but that “we were not prepared as an institution” to do that.
“We needed time to study it and consider the ramifications,” Prouser said. “We ultimately decided that we think there is enough validity to this title that we want to give our students a choice to be ordained in English as ‘rabbi’ or in Hebrew as ‘rabba.’”
The academy’s decision came in January. Stern-Kaufman noted that about a year ago the Academy of the Hebrew Language in Israel officially entered the word “rabba” into the Hebrew language.
She noted that she is the only one of the seven women in her class who has chosen to be ordained using the word “rabba.”
“It is very important to some women that they have the same title as a man who is doing the same job, just as a woman doctor should not be called something different than a male doctor,” Stern-Kaufman said. “Creating a gender for the word ‘rabbi,’ they felt, would in some way diminish the authority of the office.”