The historic decision announced in New York yesterday to open the door a crack for the entrance of some women into the powerful worldwide organization of Conservative rabbis could ease the way for a Maryland woman into that organization.
In her office at the Charles E. Smith Day School in Rockville, Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman, who has been rebuffed once in efforts to join the 1,050-member Rabbinical Assembly, said "my phone has been ringing off the hook," even though she is not specifically covered by the new action.
Officials of the assembly, official rabbinical organization of Conservative Judaism, announced yesterday adoption of a constitutional amendment that will, for the first time, guarantee admission of a woman to its ranks later this spring. She is Amy Eilberg of New York, who is slated to graduate from and be ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in May.
The question of women rabbis in Conservative Judaism, the largest body of Jews in the United States, has been bitterly debated for nearly a decade, with a substantial minority contending that the halacha, the body of Jewish law, bars women from the rabbinate.
The action announced by Rabbi Alexander M. Shapiro, president of the Assembly, was in a sense an end-run around that opposition.
Specifically, Shapiro reported that the Rabbinical Assembly had approved in a mail ballot, 636 to 267, a constitutional amendment providing that all graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the only Conservative school in this country, be automatically accepted for membership, subject to ordination by the seminary.
Eilberg, 30, hailed the announcement yesterday as "a momentous and historic event . . . a great day for American Judaism and American Jewish women . . . .
"As of today, Jewish women need never again feel that their gender is a barrier to their full participation in Jewish life," she said in a press conference at the seminary on New York's upper Broadway.
Yesterday's announcement is expected to have an indirect effect on women such as Kaufman, who, because Jewish Theological Seminary did not accept women candidates for the rabbinate until last year, did her rabbinic studies in the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College.
Reform and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism have accepted women rabbis for more than a dozen years.
Both Kaufman, 29, and Rabbi Beverly Magidson of Clifton Park, N.Y., applied for membership in the rabbinical association last year. When delegates voted 230 to 99 for Magidson's admission, short of the required three-fourths majority, the Assembly agreed to table Kaufman's application.
Both women will try again at the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly next month.
Shapiro, the organization's president, was cautiously optimistic. "I suspect that now that this roadblock is down, it is merely a matter of time," he said.
In Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly not only sets religious standards, interpreting how the ancient halacha is to be applied in contemporary life, but also plays a critical job placement role.
For years, the question of women rabbis in Conservative Judaism was tossed like a hot potato back and forth between the Assembly and the Jewish Theological Seminary.