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January 12: The Rebbetzin Serves as Rabbi

January 12, 2016

1f5d5257b99e4b7b013b1f93f72479c8Paula Ackerman, the first woman to serve as spiritual leader of an American synagogue when she was invited to take over the duties of her rabbi husband after his death in 1950, herself died at age 95 on this date in 1989. During the tenure of her husband at Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi (150 members), Ackerman taught classes and led services when he was not available. The congregation invited her to serve in his stead after he died, and once the president of the Reform synagogue movement, Maurice Eisendrath, gave the arrangement his blessings, she accepted the appointment, serving for two years and attracted widespread media attention. Eisendrath later withdrew his approval because of her limitations — she was not equipped to read the Torah in Hebrew — but the congregation rejected his ruling and kept her employed. “The congregants wanted a religious leader who cared about them,” writes Shuly Rubin Schwartz for the American Jewish Archives, “and they were less concerned about the textual fluency or erudition — or gender — of their leader than they were about his/her dedication and commitment to Judaism and to their community.” According to Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi, “The congregation... was interviewing rabbinic candidates” throughout her tenure, but was hesitant to hire someone who was foreign-born and had a heavy accent or someone who insisted on speaking out on such controversial issues as civil rights. Instead of being a radical act, the hiring of Paula Ackerman was essentially conservative and reflected the desire of Meridian Jews to be accepted by the rest of white society.” In 1962, still a decade before the ordination of women rabbis began, Ackerman also served for six months as spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Pensacola, Florida.

“I... know how revolutionary the idea is — therefore it seems to be a challenge that I pray I can meet. If I can just plant a seed for the Jewish woman’s larger participation — if perhaps it will open a way for women students to train for congregational leadership then my life would have some meaning.” —Paula Ackerman