One morning when Amy Eilberg was 14, she announced to her parents that henceforth she would refuse to eat any food that wasn’t prepared in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Both her father, Joshua Eilberg, a former Democratic congressman from Philadelphia, and her mother, Gladys, a social worker, were Jews, but they were seldom ritually observant. Impressed by Amy’s earnestness, the family decided to keep a kosher home.
Amy changed things at Brandeis University too. In 1972 she and a dozen like-minded students lobbied against traditional rules banning women from leading services and requiring them to sit apart from men in the synagogue. The next year at official services those restrictions were gone.
Eilberg, now 30, will soon fulfill a dream of 10 years, one that grew stronger each time she stood before the Brandeis congregation to read the Torah. In May she will be ordained as the first woman rabbi in Judaism’s Conservative Movement. The 100-year-old center-of-the-road group voted earlier this year to ordain women as rabbis with full powers. “I’m very excited,” says Eilberg, who popped a bottle of champagne (kosher) at the news. “It doesn’t happen often in life that something you want so badly suddenly becomes possible.”
Rabbis have been male since Judaism’s beginning, and Orthodox Jews still defend the practice. The more liberal Reform Jews began ordaining women rabbis in 1972 (there are now 71), but the Conservatives, totaling 1.5 million in the U.S., kept women out of the rabbinical program at their Jewish Theological Seminary in New York until 1983. Amy made sure she would be ready if an opening occurred.
After graduating from Brandeis with a degree in Judaic studies, she followed a self-directed course toward the rabbinate. She earned a master’s degree in Talmud at the seminary and started a doctorate. While waiting, she enrolled at Smith College and earned a master’s in social work. “If I couldn’t have the whole package as a rabbi, I wanted to train myself in the components,” she says. When the seminary finally opened the rabbinical program to women, Eilberg returned in 1984 to finish her doctorate. Although 18 other women enrolled in the seminary’s program, Eilberg was first to finish.
After ordination, home will be Bloomington, Ind., where her husband, Howard Eilberg-Schwartz, 29, a doctor of Judaic studies, teaches at Indiana University. She will assume double duties as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis and as community rabbi for the Jewish Welfare Federation.
Still one problem keeps cropping up. The wife of a rabbi is called rebbetsin. So what do you call the husband of a rabbi? One friend, himself the husband of a Reform rabbi, offered a suggestion. Said he: “Just call him lucky.”