Reforming the Rabbi Role

Reforming the Rabbi Role

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Wearing a cute green capped-sleeve tunic, with a matching green handbag, Rachel Saphire sits having dinner with a friend at Baba India in O’Bryonville. This 26-year-old beautiful brunette looks like your typical East-sider YP. But in reality, this young woman is part of a huge reform that’s changing the city, nation and, in large, a religion.

“Most people picture a rabbi with a long flowing beard and a skull cap. I am far from this image,” says Saphire, a grad student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “This may be hard for some to accept, but I find it important to express my femininity and the qualities and characteristics that are unique to my identity as a woman. To me, being a woman will contribute very positively to my role as a rabbi.”

Saphire is one year away from being ordained as a rabbi, one of only 300 female rabbis in the U.S.

The first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972 and boy did she start a trend. Saphire’s class, the rabbinic class of 2009 at The Hebrew Union College, is a majority of women. And in rabbinical schools across the nation, women are starting to outnumber men for first time. “Many women have been attracted to the profession because of the growing pastoral and spiritual roles of the rabbi,” she explains.

Saphire’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College, is the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education. It was founded in the Queen City largely because of the influx of German Jews in the 19th century, and has since built campuses in New York City, Los Angeles and Jerusalem. According to 0208GIBBERMAN.gifSaphire, this college is the academic, spiritual and professional leadership development center of a Jewish liberal movement called Reform Judaism.

 It’s an amazing time to be studying as a female rabbinical student, Saphire says. “The Reform Movement is very supportive of our endeavors and we have the opportunity to participate in such established groups as the Women’s Rabbinic Network,” she adds. “Congregants are generally comfortable with the idea of having a female rabbi. Although, this is not to say that it’s easy or that we do not commonly face issues that females in all professions face.”

Besides the rich Jewish history in Cincinnati, it continues to be a very active and diverse Jewish community. “As students and worshippers, we have the opportunity to attend four different Reform synagogues in Cincinnnati, along with synagogues of almost every other Jewish movement, such as Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, to name a few,” Saphire says. Cincinnati also boasts the opportunity to use Klau Library at the Hebrew Union College, the second largest college of Judaic books in the world. In addition, the campus houses the American Jewish Archives, and the Jewish Federation just built a new 140,000-square-foot Jewish Community Center, which is set for a Labor Day grand opening.


Photo: Neysa Ruhl Photography
Location: The McAlpin
Rachel Saphire