Post-Racial Rabbis

By | Jan 11, 2013

Even in the white Jewish community, says Carol Harris-Shapiro, rabbi-to-rabbi ordinations are making a comeback. “Some Jewish Renewal rabbis in the recent past have received smicha directly from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” she says.

Rabbi Kenneth Ehrlich, the dean of Hebrew Union College’s Cincinnati campus, was surprised to learn of Bowen. While wishing her success, he stressed the importance of rabbinical training through an institution. “It’s very difficult to get the depth and breadth of scholarship and the skill set that a rabbi has to have under the tutelage of only one rabbi,” he says.

Bowen had “a different kind of education,” counters Harris-Shapiro. “She inherited this congregation from her mother and she has gotten a pastoral education from the time she was very young that’s probably second to none.” While Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), affirms the importance of formal training for rabbis, he also thinks other factors are more important. Last year, against the recommendations of some colleagues, he invited Bowen and her congregation to JOI’s annual conference. Rabbi Bowen, he says, “is leading a congregation of hundreds of souls. It’s a powerful group of people who have a deep commitment to Judaism as religion and as people. I don’t want to be among the people that do to Bowen what others do to me,” he adds, speaking of those in the Orthodox world who reject rabbis from more liberal denominations.

The question boils down to community recognition, says Jonathan Boyarin, a professor of modern Jewish thought at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “For an anthropologist like me,” he says, “a rabbi is someone who is recognized as such by others.” Jon Cutler of Gratz College says that Stanton “is the first African-American female rabbi from a ‘movement’ point of view,” but that “from a broader Jewish context, Debra Bowen has been a rabbi for a long time. And her mother, too.”

Aronoff counsels mainstream Jews to be sensitive to unique cases like Bowen’s. “When the doors are necessarily closed to you by the proverbial gatekeepers—and there have been many people in the past who were not afforded the opportunity to attend mainstream rabbinical colleges—what do you do?” he asks. “Do you say, well, we can’t practice our religion because someone won’t let us in their schools? Of course not. Because at the end of the day it really isn’t about what school you attended or didn’t attend. It’s about a certain God and practicing our way of life.”

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