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HERI'['AGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JULY 5, 2013 Jewish American Priestess: Kohenet Institute ordains women By Emma Silvers j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California Seated cross-legged in the sunny backyard of her north Oakland home, wearing loose, tie-dyed pants, beads around her neck, her hair in tousled braids and sipping kombucha tea--her drum is tucked away for now--Taya Shere brings a few different stereotypes to mind: Hippie Earth mother• Hebrew priestess• Hebrew priestess? It might not be a familiar archetype, but it is an absolutely accurate term, says Shere. No one bestowed this title upon her at birth; she grew up in Washington, D.C., where she attended a Reform synagogue with her family and genuinely liked going to services. She even relished the study that led up to her bat mitzvah. But at 16 or 17, something changed. "From that age on, up through college, I was really beginning to question the patri- archy and the hierarchies that I saw in the Jewish tradition," says Shere, 37, who recently moved to Oakland from the D.C. area. She says she felt a true spiri- tual hunger and found herself "wrestling deeply with finding God .... Ijustcouldn'tfindwhat I was looking for in Judaism•" After spending several years studying religious folklore and women's roles in spiritual move - ments around the world, Shere gradually returned to Judaism when she realized that much of what she was looking for actually was present in Jewish tradition--it had just been "buried." Today, she's one of a couple of women at the center of a program that helps Jewish women to reclaim the "feminine divine" and reconnect to their spiritual lives. In doing so, Sherearguably has gone outside established norms of Jewish ex- pressionas ithas developed over 2,000 years, immersing herself in ancient stories about Jewish women to create something that is very new--or based on something very old, depending. on one's point of view. Kohenet, the Hebrew Priest- ess Institute, trains women to become Jewish ritual leaders by tapping into earth-based spiritual practices that they believe harken back to pre-rab- binic Judaism; a time when, ac- cording to Kohenet's founders, women took on many more (and much more powerful) spiritual leadership roles than most Jew- ish children ever hear about in Sunday school today. The Kohenet Institute-- "kohenet" is a feminine varia- "tion on "kohan," or priest-- certainly isn't the only feminist response to traditional Jewish practice that has emerged in recent years. Like Rosh Hodesh (new moon) practices and Jew- ish earth-based groups, such as Berkeley's Wilderness Torah, it comes out of a longing for spiritual rituals that match the natural rhythms of the planet, the seasons and the human (in this case female) body. The word "priestess" hasn't exactly been embraced by main- stream Judaism. For starters, it's not easy to explain; when asked for a definition, many women involved with Kohenet say they prefer it as a verb. And, like other recent innovations in Rae Abileah Judaism, it has been criticized as pagan or, worse, anti-Jewish. In a 2010 story for the online magazine Tablet, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary's rab- binical school, said "I don't see how Kohenet, to judge from its website, is compatible with Jew- ish belief and practice," noting that Judaism has always sought to move people away from "pa- ganism, magic and the worship of nature." But Kohenetwomen say that by exploring a feminist perspec- tive, they're actually drawing some women back, or deeper, into Judaism--not turning them away from it, or even nec- essarily inventing something new. And criticism aside, the program appears to have struck a chord. Women representing a range of spiritual backgrounds and ages, from their 20s to their 70s, quickly expressed interest when the program got up and running in early 2006. About 50 women have com- pleted the two-year course of study and been ordained as priestesses, and another two dozen or so are in training. The school is based at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Cen- ter in Connecticut, but women come from all over to attend retreats. About 10 Kohenet women currently live in the Bay Area; unsurprisingly, plans are in the works to establish aWest Coast base. On Aug. 15, the ini- tial "Kohenet West" program- ming will be a ritual workshop, held at Berkeley's Chochmat HaLev and open to the public, called "The Sacred Journey of the Hebrew Priestess." The bulk of learning, howev- er, happens during a weeklong retreat, held twice a year at the Isabella Freedman Center. Us- ing the HaKohanot siddur--a prayerbookthat offers tradition- al liturgy, feminine-gendered versions of prayers, poetry and guided meditations--partici- pants learn about the 13 netivot (Hebrew for "paths" or "ways of being") that female spiritual leaders or Priestesses can take: Seeker, Shrinekeeper, Mother, Wise Woman. These reflect, according to Kohenet's mis- sion statement, different types of women's spiritual roles over the course of centuries: from "biblical prophetess-priestesses to talmudic healers and magi- cians to kabbalistic dream interpreters to modern feminist ritualists." Priestesses-in-training also learn leadership skills and tools for creating rituals, depending on individual interests. One student's recent work focused on prayers and text that could support women in recovery from substance abuse. Another priestess-in-training is focused on rituals for the LGBT commu- nity. Music, in the form of dance, drumming and chanting, is integral to almost everything they do. Between retreats, women in training and alumni stay in touch via phone conferences and an online community--- something Kohenetwomen use nearly every day to reach out to each other with questions or ideas, says Shere. Rabbi Jill Hammer, 43, an au- thor and the director of spiritual education at New York's Acad- en for Jewish Religion, a non- denominational rabbinical and cantorial school, co-founded Kohenet with Shere. Hammer says critiques of the Jewish tradition from Jewish feminists such as Alicia Ostriker are part of what "propelled" her into rabhinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Once there, her interest in women's roles in Jewish text only grew. "I was delving into midrash, and I became really interested in the biblical figures of Miriam and Devorah," says Ham- mer. "And I started looking at women who were prophetesses and judges, and realizing that they were practicing spiritual leadership in a way that was actually common for women in the Middle East...much of the Torah presents things as 'Men are the leaders, and these women are exceptions,' but it's not true." Hammer began to focus on the idea of a "model of spiritual leadership that would incorporate a history of Jewish women--not just adopting the rabbinic model that had been handed to me, which is a wonderful model," she says, "but it's also been developed and maintained by men, and it's a model that's beginning to shift. I see this as a time for exploration: Where else can we find models of spiritual leader- ship in the community?" Shere allows that asking such questions has "ruffled some feathers." Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a dean of the seminary at Yeshiva University, told a Tablet reporter that earth-based or pagan Jews were "perverts" and that "pagan worship by those of Jewish birth" is what "destroyed our temples" and sent Jews into exile. And yet, those involved in Kohenet--most ofwhom do not identify themselves as pagan-- say they get something out of the program that they never experienced with traditional Judaism. For Ariel Vegosen, 33, Ko- henet has meant, among other things, a counter to the gender- restricted Judaism ofheryouth. Growing up on Long Island, she attended a Conservative synagogue that did not allow women on the bimah. "To this day, I have not read from the Torah, which is really odd and painful that I didn't get to do that as a young person," she says. "But I didn't really understand that until I was an adult•" She stayed engaged with Judaism as a teen, joining United Synagogue Youth; as a young adult she expressed it mainly through social ac- tivism, she says, founding a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group at the University of Maryland. She also holds a certificate in experiential education from Taya Shere American Jewish University, the Conservative movement's West Coast institution of higher learning. "Judaism has been a huge part of my life," she says. And yet something was missing• While on a retreat at the Freedman Center with the LGBT organi- zation Nehirim, Vegosen found herself drawn to the Kohenet women, who happened to be there on a retreat at the same time. Something just clicked. "I don't know of any other program that's inspiring wom- en to see the full potential of our religion," she says. "I feel like a lot of the time in our tradi- tion, women are not honored as leaders. Obviously we have a lot of great women leaders; [Rabbi] Lynn Gottlieb is one of my mentors. But in some ways the Jewish community is still dominated by the patriarchy and lacking in women's lead- ership...so I'm excited to be trained to step into that role [of priestess]." Vegosen says she's also been inspired by Kohenet's focus on exploring gendered language around God, and the focus on the Shechinah (the feminine aspects or version of God). "We talk a lot about Hebrew language and Aramaic, and it's almost always the case that a word can have multiple meanings, has multiple stories in it," she says, "which leads to a conversation about, 'Who's telling the story? Whose voice is this in?'" "I'm seeing more and more people in the Jewish community who are interested in the divine feminine," she adds. "And I think Kohenet can serve a role in even just getting people to go 'Oh, wow, all the prayers [in tra- ditional Hebrew text] are in the masculine. You're constantly praying to a masculine God.'" One of her long-term dreams for Kohenet's work, she says, is for the feminine versions of prayers to become more normalized, to the point that they are taught alongside the masculine ver- sions in mainstream Jewish educational settings. Naomi Seidman, Koret pro- fessor of Jewish culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, has written exten- sively on feminist Jewish topics. She said she hadn't heard of Kohenet but found the move- ment "interesting•" "One of the reasons it's odd to me is that the male priest, even, is obsolete--it basically disappeared with the destruc- tion of the Second Temple," she says. "So it's not just inserting women into a male kind of job, it's a resurrection of something that's not culturally present." Seidman noted that the concept of a priestess, how± ever, is "not without historical precedent." "The last remnant of temple sacrifice that looks anything like temple sacrifice is the burning of a ritual piece ofchal- lah, and since it was generally women that made challah, they did in a way become the last priestesses. The text does come close to saying that," she says. "It seems like [Kohenet women] are borrowing the homosocial aspects of being priests--when these men were together, it seems likely they were mostly barbecuing, doing a little singing...doing guy things," she adds with a laugh. "This seems like a way of tapping into the power of same-sex community." For San Francisco resident Rae Abileah, 30--known by some in the Bay Area for her work with the anti-war group Code Pink (she was on staff until last year) and with Jewish Voice for Peace--one of the most meaningful elements of Kohenet has been considering life milestones not generally recognized in mainstream Ju- daism.WhenAbileah leftherjob at Code Pink in 2012, Vegosen performed a ceremony for Abileah and her close friends on a beach in the East Bay. "I wanted to have some kind of gathering, a ritual to mark that significant part of my life coming to an end," she says. "And I love that Kohenet is creating new rituals for life changes that don't exist already in our tradition. Yes, we have language for birth, death, wed- dings, coming of age. But what aboutwhenyou're transitioning out of a relationship, a divorce, an abortion.., or even a house- warming? How do we create rituals around these things, in a feminist, earth-connected way?" Abileah points to the variety of ways ordained priestesses have used their leadership skills when they return to their com- munities: Many bring new rituals to their synagogues at home. One woman who lives in Philadelphia recently ran for judge, and said the skills she gained in Kohenet helped guide her political campaign. Another woman is now in rabbinical school and recently used the Kohenet prayerbook to lead davening at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Others perform marriage ceremonies and tradi- tional lifecycle rituals. Abileah says her work at Kohenet has, among other things, improved her confidence as an organizer, the work she's always done. "I want to be able to bring these teachings into unusual spaces, whether I 'm at my family dinner table or a corporate tech conference," she says. "If you want a more peaceful, harmo- nious society, put women at the leadership table, and see how things shift in dramatic ways. Kohenet is an integral part of that." Kohenet women also say be- coming a priestess makes sense for some women who, for one reason or another, don't want to attend rabbinical school. For one, the time and financial com- mitment necessary to become a rabbi prevent many people from pursuing that path. Though the Kohenet application process is "competitive," says Abileah, it doesn't require that a woman PAGE 17A Ariel Vegosen entirely restructure her life the way rabbinical school might• "Anytime you're broaden- ing leadership, connecting more people--that value is somethingI loveaboutJudaism anyway," she says. "You see it in the fact that the Passover seder is supposed to be lay-person-led: you don't need someone else to come in and do it for you." While the mainstream Jew- ishworld might not quite know what to do with priestesses just yet, Hammer and Shere say they've also received support from a range of Jewish com- munities. In August, Kohenet women will be presenting at a leadership retreat for members of Wilderness Torah, whose focus on eco-Judaism overlaps with Kohenet's earth-based vision. Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, saidhe has "tremendous respect" for the organization's directors• "I met Taya at a gathering of Jewish Renewal folk on the East Coast, and saw the amaz- ing creativity and dynamism that Kohenet was managing to elicit both from people who had previously been exposed to feminist consciousness, and from others who might have been previously resistant to it," he says. "So I thought I'd read their prayerbook. And I found that many of their interpre- tions were spiritually deep, and opened up a path to God that I think may appeal to those who have rejected traditional conceptions of God. "Judaism does need more of the original feminine energy that, in my view, was integral to Judaism in its earlier stages," says Lerner, who sees Kohenet as one of a number of nev approaches to Judaism that's poised to become a "powerful alternative to synagogue life." Regardless of the academic or rabbinical viewpoint, those involved with Kohenet say it's clear there's a growing hunger for feminist spiritual leadership in the Jewish community--a yearning Kohenet is helping to satisfy. "I think if people in their 20s and 30s are tapped out of [synagogue membership] and traditional Judaism, it's because it felt like a chore, something their parents made them do," says Abileah. "And if we don't change, we die. That's the law of the uni- verse, and it's also super relevant for Judaism right now. It's time to rethink some of the old ways that aren't working for the next generation•" Emma Silvers is a staffwriter at j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, from which this article was reprinted by permission.