First woman ever ordained a rabbi in Israel, coming to St. Louis for three appearances


Rabbi Naamah Kelman

Bill Motchan , Special to the Jewish Light

American Jews who view the protests and political debates in Israel may feel conflicted or confused about how to offer support. A series of presentations in St. Louis between April 27 and May 2 will offer some insight. As part of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the state of Israel, Rabbi Naamah Kelman and her husband, educator Elan Ezrachi, will speak to members of United Hebrew Congregation, Congregation Shaare Emeth and Congregation B’nai Amoona.

Rabbi Kelman was the first woman ordained as a rabbi in Israel, in 1992. Women rabbis are now commonplace in Israel, as they are in the United States. That wasn’t always the case.

Elan Ezrachi and Rabbi Naamah Kelman

Kelman’s father, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a leader of the Conservative Judaism movement, was a proponent of women in the rabbinate. Ezrachi is a former Israeli Air Force pilot who specializes in Israeli relations. As they prepare for their trip to St. Louis, Kelman and Ezrachi, both of whom are 68 years old, offered the Jewish Light a preview of what they’ll be discussing here.

What topics will you be covering during your presentations?

Kelman: I’m going to focus on the challenges, particularly of the liberal movements, Reform, Conservative, and the inroads we’ve made. And of course, now all this in light of the protests going on, obviously what this means, particularly in matters of religious pluralism.

As American Jews, many of us wonder how unprecedented the protests and judiciary proposals in Israel are. Will you be addressing this?

Ezrachi: One of the points that I talk about is the history of the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. Also, we will try to go deeper into the issues that are dividing Israeli society these days beyond the proposed reform in the judicial system, that there’s something deeper going on which has to do with what is the vision of Israel and who holds the key to the narrative.

Is there any way to predict how the outcome?

Kelman: No, but I always say about Israel, anything you predict will surely not come to pass. Israel is a country of surprises, political, social surprises that kind of no one could have predicted the pushback, the sustained, organized, creative, sweeping, passionate pushback to these reforms.

However, the United States is not without its own political divisiveness.

Kelman: Yes, I think what’s emerging, which I think many people in the States are watching, is a high-tech revolution. Americans don’t live on WhatsApp as much as Israelis do. This revolution is being run on WhatsApp. Everybody’s on these groups that tell you when the rally is, who’s speaking, what you can do, where you can volunteer, how you can keep up your morale. It’s astounding.

Ezrachi: The question is, will Israel become a country which has a Jewish dominance and intolerance to minorities and other forms of existence or not.

When you were ordained as the first woman rabbi in Israel, was the event treated as a landmark?

Kelman: I was on CNN. It was a big deal more in the U.S. Israel didn’t know what to do with me exactly. I was featured in two women’s magazines. I was featured in the local Jerusalem press in one big newspaper. I was on the curiosity page.

More and more Jews are unaffiliated with congregations. Where do you think the movement is going?

Kelman: The new buzzword, of course, is we’re at an inflection moment. We’re at an inflection moment in Israel, I’d like to say that the rise of alternative Judaism, which I’ve been part of in Israel for the past 40 something years, which did not exist before, basically starting the 1980s, when you had the emergence of Reform and Conservative Judaism. It’s a very interesting inflection point about what does it mean to be an Israeli Jew. Parallel is what’s coming on in America, where the sense the inflection point is these legacy institutions are floundering, synagogues are merging, the liberal movements are shrinking.

During your visit to St. Louis, what do you hope people will take away from your presentations? 

Kelman: I’ll speak more as a rabbi, that we like to give comfort and I want people not to turn off from Israel. I want people to remain engaged. I want people to know there’s a great force. And even without this big protest, in some ways a protest proving it, there is growing number of Israelis seeking non-Orthodox Judaism. And here, American Jews can be great partners in that because you live liberal Jewish life, and that’s all the Jewish people.

Ezrachi: I would add that my agenda is that critical thinking about Israel is a form of engagement. In other words, when you observe something from a distance, whether it’s sitting on the bleachers of a stadium or watching an exhibit in the museum, you’re passive. But being involved in the internal debate in Israel with a position, then you’re engaged. There’s no reason why American Jews should not be engaged in these issues because they do have an impact and they inform the narrative of the whole Jewish people. That’s why being familiar, knowledgeable, engaged, and even showing an active voice.

Rabbi Naamah Kelman and her husband Elan Ezrachi will be speaking at Shabbat service at Congregation B’nai Amoona on Friday, April 28, when Kelman will be delivering the sermon. Ezrachi will be teaching a lesson on Israeli relations at Congregation Shaare Emeth on Saturday morning, April 29. Kelman and Ezrachi will also be delivering a “lunch-and-learn” session at B’nai Amoona, and they will be speaking at United Hebrew Congregation. For exact times and more details, check on each congregation’s website. The Jewish Light will update this information as it becomes available.