On the evening of July 20, members of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute found an unexpected email from Rabbi Jill Hammer and Taya Mâ Shere in their inboxes. “In 2005 we founded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute toward reclaiming and innovating embodied, earth-honoring models of feminist Jewish spiritual leadership in celebration of the divine feminine,” it began. “While the work of Kohenet is far from done, it has come time for the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (KHPI) to transform. Full with gratitude, and tender with grief, we write to let you know that a decision has been made that the KHPI will close our doors in the fall of 2023, at the beginning of 5784.” The message reverberated throughout a very specific sector of American Jewry. “I got very emotional when I saw the email. I started crying,” said one recipient. “I was surprised how sad I felt,” said another.
The story of the institute—and even the term “kohenet” itself—is not known to most Jews. But since its founding, KHPI had quietly transformed spiritual life for many people previously on the margins of Jewish life by weaving together a potent mix of Jewish feminist scholarship and a willingness to create (or recreate, as many see it) new Jewish roles, rituals and spaces. As used by Hammer and Shere, kohenet—Hebrew for “priestess”—does not refer to the kohanim, the hereditary line of men who descend from biblical Aaron. Rather, any woman or nonbinary person who “embodies the human-divine connection” within a Jewish framework—using Hebrew; interpreting Jewish texts; and engaging with the complexities of the Hebrew calendar, exile and continuity—can be called a Hebrew priestess and thus a kohenet.
During its 18 years, KHPI, or simply Kohenet, ordained 137 such kohanot (the plural form), many of them now embedded in traditional Jewish institutions such as synagogues and Jewish community centers. At the time of its closure, more than 740 people had expressed interest in being ordained in its next cohort—in an era when many rabbinical schools are finding it hard to attract students.
Yet the creative dynamics that allowed the organization to flourish also, in time, led to its unraveling. And most certainly, the institute’s relatively short life revived the ancient question of what gets to be called Judaism—and who gets to decide.
Raised Reform in the suburbs of Washington, DC, Taya Mâ Shere—then Holly Taya Shere—strayed from Judaism early. “At a certain point in my young adult life, I railed against what I experienced as the hierarchy, the patriarchy, the disembodiment, and went far and wide searching for meaning,” she says. Shere studied folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and “woke up to the sacred” while living in an alternative, off-the-grid community in rural Brazil and researching Candomblé, an African-Brazilian spiritual tradition. “I came into presence of Goddess through moon, through earth, through body, through blood,” she says.
Shere wasn’t the first Jewish woman to chart this course. In the 1970s, when feminism was beginning to percolate into Jewish theology and spiritual practice, many Jewish women left the fold entirely. One of those women was Starhawk, née Miriam Simos, whose 1979 book The Spiral Dance eschewed patriarchal religion and helped launch the feminist, neo-pagan Goddess movement in the United States. Starhawk has said she considered attending rabbinical school, but preferred dancing naked around bonfires to attending services. The Reclaiming Collective, which Starhawk founded with Diane Baker, another Jewish woman, emphasized ecstatic dance, trances, magic and—first and foremost—Goddess worship.
In these circles, the word “Goddess” can have different meanings depending on the context. As used by Starhawk and others in the neo-pagan movement, Goddess is an entity other than the Abrahamic God. This entity can be understood as either particular or universal, internal or external, as Earth and/or as a syncretic mix of different ancient goddesses such as Isis from ancient Egypt, Hecate from ancient Greece, and Asherah, an ancient Canaanite fertility goddess. Within the neo-pagan movement, women who dedicated themselves to a particular goddess were sometimes called priestesses.
When Shere came back to the States from Brazil in late 1997, she moved into a communal house of priestesses in West Philadelphia and performed rituals honoring the lunar and solar cycles with her housemates as part of a spiritual community called Moon Circle. “That’s really where I came into chanting and drumming and into my immersion in ritual craft,” she says. Members of the collective danced, read divination cards and guided ceremonies for their broader community. Many of the rituals were influenced by Wiccan and Native American traditions, in ways that Shere now considers appropriative.
Unlike Starhawk, Shere eventually felt the need to “come home” to Jewish tradition. “I dipped my toes in the water, little by little, and was amazed to find that actually what I believed and practiced very much was present in Jewish tradition, if I knew where to look,” she says. “What mattered to me, in terms of honoring the moon and honoring the earth and honoring the sacred feminine, was all there in Judaism—just not the Judaism I was handed growing up.”
Over the next few years, in her early to mid-twenties, Shere began to combine the Goddess-centered practices she had co-created in Philadelphia with what she was learning from teachers in the Jewish Renewal movement, applying her use of the term Goddess to Judaism’s deity. “Once I found my bearings within Judaism, I was able to connect the dots with a lot of joy.”
But she was unsure of how to move forward. So in 2005, she visited the founder of the Renewal movement, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (also known as Reb Zalman), and explained her situation. “He offered me a really potent blessing that was a little different than I wanted,” she remembers. “It kind of freaked me out.” The blessing was for a shidduch—meaning a match, usually romantic in nature, which Shere was emphatically not interested in. It wasn’t until a few months later that the blessing’s meaning became clear.
As a child, Jill Hammer pored over her Hebrew school-issued Pentateuch so often that her rabbi commented on the crumpled pages. Growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1970s and 1980s, Hammer spent a lot of time in nature and was entranced by fantasy novels, dreams and the image of the High Priestess in the Tarot card deck. As an undergraduate at Brandeis, she immersed herself deeply in both the Talmud and the works of Jewish women poets such as Malka Heifetz Tussman and Marge Piercy.
“To me, what these women were writing could not be defined solely as poetry,” she writes in The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, a 2015 book she coauthored with Shere. “It was liturgy. God was mother, lover, bride, queen, even rebel lesbian.” She describes the discovery as thrilling and a little disturbing, “since inside me, God was mostly a cross between a cloud and a dad…Many Jews seemed to believe that seeing God as female was a half-step away from idol-worship. Why all the anger? I began to wonder. What is there to be afraid of in a female image of God?”
Hammer graduated from Brandeis in 1991 and later earned a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Connecticut. She often tells a story about a dream she had while submerged in the scholarly world of social psychology. “I was in a bar and there was a guest of honor arriving at this cocktail party that was taking place in this bar, and the guest of honor was God,” Hammer recounts. “And God was a massive, glowing pregnant woman.” In the dream, God gave her a wrought-iron lantern. “When I woke up I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to do with the lantern. So I called a rabbinical school and got an application.” Hammer went to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school, thus joining the lineage of Jewish feminists who chose to reform Judaism from within.
In 1971, a study group of women called Ezrat Nashim began to push the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly to allow women access to fundamental religious representation, such as permission to count toward a minyan. The Reform movement ordained Sally Priesand as the first American woman rabbi the following year. In 1973, the first Jewish American Feminist Conference was held at the Hotel McAlpin in New York City. Shoshana Bricklin, now a kohenet, attended the conference with her mother. “We wanted to be part of the structure,” she remembers.
Pressure to ordain women within the Conservative movement grew. After many committee discussions, responsa and votes (and no naked bonfire dancing), JTS started admitting women in 1983. Through the 1980s, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly organized a series of debates between Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow—who had made her name at the 1973 conference—and Starhawk about whether feminists should leave Judaism. While Starhawk condemned everything having to do with patriarchal religion and embraced paganism, Plaskow hoped to abolish sexist practices and theology within Judaism.
Meanwhile, an interesting fusion was happening in the Renewal movement, which had embraced the same countercultural ethos as Starhawk even while remaining committed to Judaism. Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb was the first woman ordained by the movement. Her 1995 book, She Who Dwells Within, was “a practical guide to nonsexist Judaism.” She emphasized Shekhinah, a medieval mystical concept depicting a feminine aspect of God, as a core experiential aspect of Judaism. She also decried the disempowerment of women in ancient Israel/Canaan when the worship of Asherah, the Canaanite fertility goddess, was suppressed, and called for a more egalitarian Judaism modeled to some degree on other indigenous cultures, such as those of Native Americans. Although her work was controversial, Gottlieb was not alone—Rabbis Leah Novick, Tirzah Firestone and Rayzel Raphael all published work on the divine feminine in Judaism in the 1990s. All of their work eventually helped shape Kohenet—and Jill Hammer.
After her ordination from JTS in 2001, Hammer found a home at Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project, a nonprofit housed in the Manhattan Jewish Community Center, where she helped document contemporary ritual innovations of Jewish women—for instance, a cup of water for Miriam at the Passover seder. Hammer recalls how she began to encounter women who called themselves kohanot, or who were “devoted to the Hebrew goddess.” By 2005, she felt it was time for something new and more formal. “There were a lot of groups having experiences together, but there wasn’t a priestess training program,” she says.
Shortly after Reb Zalman’s blessing, and days after the passing of Savina Teubal (a pioneer of feminist midrash and ritual whose death they feel “opened a portal” for their work together), Hammer and Shere were introduced through their mutual friend, Rabbi Jay Michaelson, and immediately clicked. “We basically conceived Kohenet in the first 24 hours after our first phone call,” says Hammer. “It just became clear: This is why we are meeting; this is a thing we have to do together.” Shortly after, they announced KHPI and invited people to apply.
The training included two week-long retreats per year for three years, plus online classes in between. With text study, group prayer and long discussions about the nature of the Divine, the retreats resembled traditional adult Jewish education. Yet the aromatic oils, drumming and general ambience also imbued them with some of the sensibility of the neo-pagan Goddess movement. After two years, participants became “initiated.” After a third year of study, initiates would become ordained as full-fledged kohanot.
The first cohort gathered at Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat center in Accord, New York, in 2006. “The first thing I remember is we kind of reenacted a birth,” recalls Shoshana Bricklin, who was a member of the first cohort, which graduated 11 people. “We crawled through what was like the birth canal, and then we came out in a room to an expansive place. And that was the beginning of Kohenet.”
In The Hebrew Priestess, Hammer and Shere point to 13 ways that Jewish women have, throughout history, served the Divine and their communities. Kohenet refers to these models of women’s spiritual leadership as netivot, or pathways, and they underpinned the Kohenet curriculum. Some of the models for these netivot are well-known, such as the prophetesses Miriam and Deborah.
Others are more esoteric, such as the “wise-hearted women” who hand-spun goat hair into materials for the Tabernacle in Exodus 35:25-26. Hammer and Shere cite the latter as setting a precedent for the “weaver-priestess” netivah (the singular form).
Each of the netivot is a composite image. The weaver-priestess archetype, for example, draws on varied Jewish sources relating to weaving, spinning and creating sacred art as a catchall for “the one who creates.” The Hebrew Priestess sketches out a history of sacred weavers, from the women who wove the curtain for the Holy of Holies mentioned in the oral law of the second-century Tosefta, to the maidens who wove garments for Asherah in the Temple complex. (Just as, in Greek tradition, the weavers of Athena’s robe, too, were virgins.)
Along with the Weaver, Shere and Hammer identify the Midwife, the Lover, the Maiden, the Mourning-Woman and many others. “We were basically looking at all of the different ways that spiritual leadership had manifested for women, for prophets, for wise women, for people on the margins,” says Hammer.
“Many Jews seemed to believe that seeing God as female was a half-step away from idol-worship. Why all the anger? What is there to be afraid of in a female image of God?”
Like Plaskow and others, Hammer and Shere argue that many of the spiritual practices most associated with women—such as weaving garments for Asherah—were targeted by monotheistic reformers in the period leading up to the first Judaean exile in 586 BCE and suppressed. Hammer and Shere view these reforms as a patriarchal incursion and see the subsequent entrenchment of male-dominated perspectives in the Talmud and other important Jewish texts as a lens to deconstruct. “We cannot assume that a patriarchal text is the voice of God. Or, it may be what someone heard from God, but it may not be the version that includes everybody,” says Hammer.
Both women were surprised, then, at Kohenet’s warm reception at a gathering of Renewal rabbis when Shere first spoke about it there in 2006. “I remember being really nervous, because I thought we would be perceived as heretics,” says Shere. “I don’t think we realized how hungry many Jews were for our work—the Goddess strands, the altar strands, the embodiment strands. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but there wasn’t any uproar—we stayed mostly under the radar and people who didn’t like us mostly ignored us.”
“We were pretty careful not to claim that [becoming a kohenet] was the same as a rabbinical or cantorial ordination,” says Hammer, who became director of spiritual education at the transdenominational Academy for Jewish Religion around the same time. “We just weren’t looking for that kind of recognition.”
“They’re honey attracting the bees, not wasps attacking the establishment,” says Shulamit Reinharz, a sociologist who recently retired from Brandeis University.
In 2007, Hammer and Shere published the first edition of their Hebrew priestess prayerbook, the Siddur HaKohanot, containing prayers and rituals written both by them and by their students. Its cover features a drawing by the late Kohenet Yosefa Greenberg of a figure that is part woman, part tree, and hence evocative of Asherah. Hammer and Shere were not the first to incorporate the Canaanite fertility goddess into the Jewish world; Judith Plaskow remembers various groups in the 1970s creating Jewish rituals based on the worship of Asherah or other ancient goddesses. But the institute’s apparent sanctioning of Asherah led some critics and fans to view Kohenet as “unabashedly pagan,” and hence, for skeptics, beyond the pale of Judaism. “I remember someone in our first cohort was leading a service in her home synagogue, a Conservative synagogue in the Midwest, and she integrated one of our prayers that included the language of Asherah,” remembers Shere. “For the rabbi of the synagogue, that was a hard no.”
Years later, Asherah can still be a dividing line. The founders explain that the movement isn’t pagan but espouses a “soft” view of monotheism. The Hebrew Priestess cites biblical and other Near Eastern sources showing that Asherah was seen by ancient Israelites as the consort of the Hebrew God and that many ancient Hebrew worshippers had no problem with her. “One of the ways we can learn about what was being practiced is by what was later prohibited,” says Shere.
This kind of inverse exegesis causes many mainstream Jews to raise their eyebrows. “I still see Kohenet as kind of ‘other’ at this point. And I think [the people involved] like that,” says Reinharz.
“They want to push the boundaries. But I think some people feel that they’re so oriented to the new that they have abandoned the old.”
Another Kohenet practice that might give some Jews pause is ancestral healing, the idea—lent scientific plausibility by advancements in the field of epigenetics—that unresolved traumas experienced by one’s ancestors are passed down and can be healed today. One way kohanot have been trained to practice this is by directly addressing deceased ancestors. Ilyse Iris Magy, a Jewish artist based in Berkeley, has taken classes with Kohenet and studied ancestral healing with Shere. “Sometimes in those experiences, people get very specific imagery, like being in a vineyard or being handed something by someone,” she says. “My experiences aren’t exactly that concrete. They are more like seeing colors, or even just a ‘knowing.’”
This might seem to violate the Torah’s prohibition against communicating with the dead—traditional rabbinic authorities have strict guidelines about how, and why, to do this. “But all these things that we say Jews don’t do, often were being done,” argues Hammer. “For example, everybody goes to the graves of saints and rabbis. Nobody calls that necromancy. But that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re summoning a spirit to help them. They’re not just there to remember, they’re there to talk to the person.”
Kohenet’s willingness to experiment was a huge draw for many Jews who had been looking for ways to integrate their Jewish identity with other aspects of their spiritual lives. April Baskin, a mixed-race Jew and former executive within the Reform movement, was part of Kohenet’s final cohort. “Kohenet was a wonderful portal through which I could not only continue to grow Jewishly, but through which I could actively engage in doing something as a mixed heritage person and a multicultural person that I regularly long for—shlemut, experiencing deeper wholeness,” she says. Baskin, whose father is Black and Cherokee, has wanted to be able to draw not only from her Jewish identity but from her father’s traditions, which she says are more harmonious with what Kohenet offers than with mainstream Judaism.
Seren Sonell, who is not a kohenet but who had hoped to apply, completed her conversion to Judaism in 2023 and had previously dabbled in neo-paganism. She chose Judaism precisely for its loyalty to history. “My sense with Kohenet is that it’s never been the goal to throw out the Torah and the Talmud,” Sonell says. “It’s been the opposite.” As an autistic lesbian in an interfaith marriage, Sonell doesn’t feel she fits into many of Judaism’s more conventional spaces or leadership programs.
Keshira haLev Fife joined the program in 2014. “Sometimes the Jewish world talks about Jews of color, queer folks, disabled folks, fat folks as being on the margins of society. What they don’t tell us is that there are a lot of us on the margins and that we can gather ourselves,” says Fife. “It can be a party. It can be a creative force. And I think Kohenet was that. Many people who were isolated in their identity or in their Jewish experience came to feel a sense of home, myself included. To arrive at Kohenet was to realize there’s actually a ‘red tent’ out in the desert, and there’s room for me in it.”
The mid-2010s were a period of rapid growth for KHPI, which held its retreats at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut (Elat Chayyim had merged with Isabella Freedman in 2006.) In 2015, Shere initiated a West Coast Kohenet cohort, which opened the program to people such as Amanda Nube, a Berkeley-area doula and mother who initially “just wanted to go to some women’s retreats.” After Nube was ordained by Kohenet in 2018, however, she was inspired to enter a Jewish chaplaincy program and became a Jewish educator at the Bay Area Renewal synagogue Chochmat HaLev. She is also a member at Congregation Beth Israel, Berkeley’s Modern Orthodox shul, which she reports is very respectful of her Kohenet ordination. “People want to know my experience or my input or if I have anything to share,” says Nube. “They’re looking for female leadership.”
On the East Coast, Kohenet continued to meet at Isabella Freedman. Hammer remembers the point at which they outgrew their space there—a red yurt, fittingly. “In 2017 or so we began meeting in the synagogue or the lounge. That was kind of a big moment—there was something symbolic about taking over the main prayer space, to walk into the synagogue and feel that the room was full.”
By this point, many of the institute’s graduates had begun presenting themselves as kohanot back in their home communities, from Canada, England and Costa Rica to across the United States. Some were doulas or herbalists or artists, but others were embedded in traditional Jewish institutions such as synagogues, community centers and summer camps. The movement was catching on.
Kohenet’s growth and expanding influence heightened the creative tension between the organization’s investment in credibility versus practicing “things that are radical and would freak some people out,” says Shere. Laughing, she remembers one particular semicha (ordination) ceremony. “We were being featured in a book written by a bestselling author [Bruce Feiler]. He was sitting in the front row watching us create this portal, and there were priestesses quietly pouring menstrual blood around to create the space. And others are looking on like, ‘Oh no, is the reporter seeing us working with these magical things?’”
Magy, the Berkeley artist, acknowledges that for the movement to reach a wider audience, mainstream Jews “might need to find Kohenet less weird.” But in the final analysis, she’s defiant. “I don’t know who needs to be happy for something to be counted as Judaism. I guess part of me doesn’t really care.” Baskin agrees. “Judaism is robust enough, big enough and wide enough to hold all of this and to not be threatened by it.”
At the same time, the organization needed to change in order to keep up with the growth. Shortly after her ordination in July 2017, Fife stepped into leadership at Kohenet as Oreget Kehilah, meaning “Weaver of Community,” or executive director. “I was amped up and anointed and ready to roll,” she remembers. “We had grown enough that we were ready to move into a new stage.”
On the East Coast, Isabella Freedman handled registration and other details. But on the West Coast, Kohenet suddenly had to develop a lot of expertise about how to manage its own unique retreat experiences, and Fife tried to help hasten this process.
“And then what happened?” says Fife. “A pandemic.”
COVID-19 was the beginning of the end for Kohenet—although, paradoxically, because it spurred a rapid increase in the institute’s reach. By mid-March 2020, Kohenet was organizing weekly online Shabbat services and had created a series called “Unravel: Priestessing in Times of Crisis,” leading to a huge influx of new interest. Attendance at all the classes in the institute’s “Virtual Temple” grew. By late 2021, people were asking if they could be ordained entirely online. “That growth way outpaced us,” says Fife. “Pretty much immediately when the pandemic came, the tensions both among our leadership team and in the community became much harder to navigate,” remembers Shere.
Fife describes the last several years as a “perfect storm,” as Kohenet traversed the same cultural, generational and political divisions as the broader American Jewish community. But beneath all these challenges was a core tension between the founders, who for 18 years had managed to balance the hunger to experiment and be “wild” with the desire for recognition in the larger Jewish world. Finally, Hammer and Shere, who from the beginning had very different backgrounds and frameworks, found it difficult to contain their visions within one organization.
When Fife’s proposals led to more community conflict, she decided to leave the organization (for that and other reasons) in January 2023. Next came the premature end of the third West Coast cohort, which had met twice in person before the pandemic. That announcement came late that spring. “It was before we knew that Kohenet was closing, but we were already on life support,” says Shere.
The cumulative impact was too much for the institute. “In the end, given all the issues, any one of those things we could have managed,” says Hammer. “But with all of them together, it seemed like it was the graceful time to close.”
And so, amid copper bowls, cinnamon quills, pomegranate juice and an umbilical cord made of yarn, KHPI anointed its final 29 students in late August 2023.
Four women sit cross-legged, side-by-side, on a bimah in Berkeley, California. It is Shabbat, mid-September, and the Renewal synagogue Chochmat HaLev is hosting a Kohenet morning service with about 40 people present and many more online. The service is led by Amanda Nube and follows a traditional structure but is replete with timbrels, female God language and chants. Nube scheduled the service before the announcement about Kohenet’s closure, but the organization’s end has made her feel more personal ownership about keeping the legacy alive. “I do feel more responsibility to be more public and less private in my priestessing,” says Nube. “People have been asking me this question a lot—‘Where’s that space going to come from next?’—it’ll come from individuals.”
It’s too early to tell whether a new institute will arise to ordain Jewish priestesses. “I hope that we don’t go back from here. I hope that Kohenet isn’t just a blip or catalyst for all the things that stemmed from it already,” says Magy, who before Kohenet’s closure was deliberating between applying for KHPI or a rabbinical program. “For my own part, if I become a rabbi, I guess I would consider myself being in the Kohenet lineage whether or not I have that title.”
But the influence of Kohenet can now be found in many of the foundational institutions of American Judaism. “Elements of what Kohenet—we can call it a movement if you want to, but I think that’s too strong a word—was doing have really come into normative Judaism,” says sociologist Reinharz. “Everyone seems to be experimenting. And what Kohenet did was provide one additional source of great ideas that we could use.”
Jill Hammer and Taya Mâ Shere have both embarked on new projects. In November, along with several graduates of KHPI, Hammer launched Beit Kohenet (Kohenet House), an organization that offers services, retreats and short-term classes and workshops in the tradition of Kohenet—but with no ordination track. She also has several books in the pipeline. For her part, Shere is currently co-leading Jewish and Sufi gatherings as a part of Makam Shekhina (Hebrew for “Place of Shekhinah”) and is supporting Kohanot who are active in the movement for a cease-fire in Gaza. But mostly, she says, she’s taking things slow, “moving at a pace that supports integrating the learnings of this time, making earth-reverent music and ritual, and tending new dreams.”
Hammer and Shere remain supportive of each other’s work, and they believe that the next evolution of the Kohenet movement will be led by those they ordained through KHPI, spiritual leaders who may, in time, ordain others. And although the end of Kohenet was sudden, the founders’ commitment to their cause has helped them to decouple with grace—a remarkable thing in the rough-and-tumble world of Jewish institutions.
“We have always said that we aren’t the people who are ordaining. We always say that it’s Shekhinah who ordains, and now that will be true in a new way,” says Hammer. “And that might be smooth, or it might be rocky for a while, I don’t know. But that decentralization is probably needed, in some way, for us to actually see if this can become an organic part of Jewish life.”
Opening picture: Elana Brody receives smicha. (Photo credit: Gili Getz)
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