When asked what a nice Jewish girl is doing in a group like the rabbinate, Michal (with the “ch” as in chutzpah) Bernstein remembers a flight in June 1967. Then a Hunter College student and folk singer, she was on her way to Israel to help with the harvest. En route, the Six-Day War broke out. From Athens to Tel Aviv the plane flew with no exterior lights and the window shades down. “We arrived,” Michal recalls, “singing the Jewish hymn Sholom Aleichem. I finally felt I was on my own soil. I belonged.”
She spent four years in Israel, two in the army entertainment corps, and they changed her life. The daughter of a New York lawyer who was also an orthodox cantor, Michal came home in 1971 and hurried through a five-year program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in four. Last year she was ordained a rabbi, one of three such women in the world, and one of only two in the Reform movement.
Today the 28-year-old Rabbi Bernstein’s congregation encompasses all Jewish college students in the U.S. As university programs director of the United Jewish Appeal, she speaks to campus gatherings and chaperones UJA-sponsored foreign tours.
Not surprisingly, a major theme of Rabbi Bernstein’s college presentations is feminism and her ancient religion. “Judaism has always put women on a pedestal,” she tells audiences. “In the morning blessing, a man thanks God he’s not a woman, because a woman does not have the obligation and honor of serving God. All a woman says is, ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has created me according to Thy will.’ She isn’t obligated to serve God. That,” Bernstein declares, “is a cop-out. If our role in society has changed, our religious role must, too.”
Bernstein has never considered herself just one of the boys (although she insists she would have been hired for the UJA post “even if I were a man”). In rabbinical school, as the only woman among 60 students, she was the stand-in bride during wedding ceremony practice. “What did they do before I came?” she wondered. (They didn’t practice weddings.)
The rabbi admits that while she was a rabbinical student she worried about her marriage prospects. But on a June 1974 blind date, Michal Seserman met Ken Bernstein, a Long Island medical intern three years her senior. “I didn’t care if she was a rabbi,” Ken recalls. “I just asked what she looked like.” They were married two months later. “Ken is the only male rebbitzen [spouse of a rabbi] at religious conferences,” says Michal proudly. (Of the two other female rabbis, one is unmarried and the other is the wife of a rabbi.)
A rabbi and a doctor in the same house might seem like the ultimate in nachas (Yiddish for joy), but Michal’s travels and Ken’s 110 hours a week as a resident in general surgery limit their time together. Children will come “eventually,” says Michal. The Bern-steins keep a kosher home (of his wife’s cooking, Ken says, “She makes pretty good tea”), but they eat nonkosher food when dining out.
The protean Rabbi Bernstein is contemplating a newspaper column and children’s books on Jewish subjects, and is organizing the National Alliance of Women in the Clergy. When she tires of her itinerant preaching, she would like a congregation; she led two, on Long Island and in northern California, while a student. Characteristically, she wants a synagogue on her own terms. “I can’t be a father-figure,” she says. “Nor can I be maternalistic. I can’t be on a pedestal. I can be,” asserts Michal Bernstein, “a friend.”