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Eilberg, Amy


EILBERG, AMY (1954– ), first woman to be ordained as a Conservative rabbi and admitted into the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis. Eilberg was the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia family. Her father Joshua Eilberg served in Congress from 1967 to 1979. A product of the Conservative movement, she began her journey towards the rabbinate in the mid-late 1960s in the institutions of informal and youth education of the Conservative movement, United Synagogue Youth and Ramah Camps, where she discovered her passion for Jewish religious practice and her innate talent for Jewish leadership.

Eilberg's college and graduate school years coincided with the height of the Jewish feminist movement. She entered Brandeis University in fall 1972, the same year the Reform movement ordained its first female rabbi, Sally *Priesand. At Brandeis, Eilberg enjoyed the mentorship of long-time Hillel rabbi Al Axelrad, who encouraged several pioneering women to become rabbis. As a freshman undergraduate, Eilberg was a student leader in a successful effort to make services at the campus Jewish chapel egalitarian. During her undergraduate years, Eilberg decided to pursue a path to the Conservative rabbinate, even though the Jewish Theological Seminary was, at that time, a decade away from its decision to ordain women.

In 1976, Eilberg entered the Seminary as an MA student in Talmud. After completing the masters program, she continued her academic work as a doctoral student in Talmud, studying primarily at Neveh Schechter (the name by which the Conservative movement's seminary in Israel was then known) and also at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. As a Talmud student, Eilberg was taught and mentored by such luminaries as Shamma *Friedman, David *Weiss-Halivni, Seymour *Siegel, and Gordon Tucker as well as the Seminary's then chancellor Gerson *Cohen.

While Eilberg and other women hoping to enter the rabbinical school pursued graduate studies, the battles surrounding women's ordination grew more intense. Chancellor Gerson Cohen established a "Commission on the Ordination of Women," charged to take testimony from communities around the country and which encouraged Seminary faculty to write position papers on the matter. A faculty vote that was to be held on December 19, 1979, was tabled in the face of a sharply divided group. Disappointed supporters established a popular and effective grassroots organization called grow (Group for the Rabbinic Ordination of Women) that held public rallies, gathered support, and utilized the press to draw attention to their concerns.

Despite these setbacks, Eilberg remained committed to pursuing the rabbinate. In 1982, she entered the Masters of Social Work program of Smith College in order to train in the pastoral aspects of rabbinic work. In October 1983, following heated debate at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and in the Rabbinical Assembly, a vote was taken by the Seminary faculty to admit women to the Rabbinical School beginning with the incoming class of the fall 1984. Nineteen women, including Amy Eilberg, were admitted to the Rabbinical School. Since Eilberg had already completed most of the Rabbinical School curriculum, she was able to graduate in the same academic year, becoming the first female Conservative rabbi on May 14, 1985.

Subsequent to her ordination, Eilberg was drawn to pastoral work and served as a Jewish hospital chaplain. She also served as assistant rabbi at Har Zion Temple near Philadelphia. While in the Philadelphia area, she headed the Yad L'Chaim Jewish Hospice Program of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis. These experiences in pastoral care came to serve as the basis for Eilberg's groundbreaking work in the nascent Jewish Healing movement. In 1991, Eilberg, together with Rabbi Nancy Flam (Reform), co-founded the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. At the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, the Jewish Healing Center offered spiritual care to Jews living with illness, death, and loss, as well as support to health professionals and Bikkur Holim volunteers, and conducted educational programming to inform the Jewish community about Jewish teachings on the challenges of illness and loss. Since the founding of the Healing Center in 1991, and the creation of the National Center for Jewish Healing in 1995, dozens of Jewish communities have launched their own Jewish healing programs and countless synagogues have embraced healing as a primary focus of communal concern.

Eilberg remained at the Jewish Healing Center through 1996, when, once again in the forefront of Jewish religious innovation, she was drawn to the practice of "Spiritual Direction," a counseling practice dedicated to supporting individuals in recognizing the ways in which God is present in their everyday life experience. Eilberg was also the co-founder of Yedidya, the Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction, and continued to write and lecture widely.

[Julie Schonfeld (2nd ed.)]

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