When Lila Kagedan, the new rabbi of Mount Freedom Jewish Center, introduced herself to young children at her synagogue’s after school program as the new rabbi of their congregation, none of them were surprised. However, her announcement was surprising and historic, as she was the first woman to become a rabbi of an Orthodox congregation.
Kagedan had always dreamed of being a rabbi since she was a little girl, but rabbinical school for women did not exist for most of her life.
“Growing up the only model of rabbi in the Orthodox world were men,” Kagedan says to CNN. “So in some ways this really didn’t feel like an option.”
Kagedan, 35, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Montreal. Her father, who died two years ago, was her “greatest teacher” and would study Jewish texts with her on most nights and urged her to follow her dreams.
“I wouldn’t say that he told me that there were no barriers — I would say that he had no idea how this would come about,” Kagedan says. “His message to me was to arm myself with the rabbinate texts, to know them intimately. But he cautioned me not to be angry. And if I was feeling angry about exclusion to take that anger and do something very productive with it.”
Kagedan spent years studying bioethics around the world, but always continued to study the Jewish texts with the hope that one day she could attend rabbinical school. Finally, in 2009, a school called Yeshivat Maharat opened up with the dream of helping women achieve leadership positions within the Orthodox Jewish community. Kagedan graduated third in her class at Yeshivat Maharat.
While there have been Orthodox women before Kagedan who took the title “rabba,” Kagedan strongly believed and wanted to be called Rabbi Kagedan.
“I knew that I wanted my title to be the most accurate description of my training,” Kagedan says. “I didn’t want to walk into a room or a space and have there be any ambiguity of what it is that I was there to do. What my training was. What my skill set was.”
Not all within the Orthodox movement accept the notion of a female rabbi. In October 2015, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an organization made up of Orthodox rabbis, passed a resolution in response to Yeshivat Maharat ordaining women as rabbis saying that it was “a violation of our mesorah [tradition]” and that Yeshivat Maharat’s decision to do so was “a path that contradicts the norms of our community.”
When Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice president, was asked about Kagedan’s new position as rabbi, he said that the RCA encourages a diversity of [sanctioned] and communally appropriate opportunities for learned, committed women,” but it does not accept the ordination or recognition of women as Orthodox rabbis.
Kagedan says that she is a product of an RCA education and that her best teachers were part of the RCA. However, she hopes that the RCA will come to accept the idea of women leading congregations.
“Women need to see other women in these leadership positions to keep them motivated in their Judaism, to have leaders that they can relate to, that they can feel comfortable with in different ways that they might not feel comfortable with their male leadership,” Kagedan says. “I guarantee you only positive outcomes will emerge from having men and women working in the rabbinate and being accessible to the community.”
Kagedan says that the Mount Freedom Jewish Center congregation, which is located about an hour outside New York City, has warmly welcomed her and that her main focus at Mount Freedom Jewish Center will be on teaching. Kagedan sees herself at Mount Freedom Jewish Center as a rabbi to serve both men and women, but she understands why her position is so important to the women in her congregation.
“I hope to normalize women in leadership roles,” she says. “When I look out at the community and I see … young girls, I hope that they get a sense that anything is possible. That nothing is out of their reach. And that it might be a tremendous struggle and it might come with tremendous sadness and frustration but that if they want something badly enough it’s their responsibility to create a mood where this can come about.”
Kagedan’s life is a balancing act between upholding Orthodox Jewish traditions that are so important to her and pushing her own boundaries in her role as a female Orthodox rabbi.
Being a female rabbi has its challenges within the world of Orthodox Judaism, such as where to stand.
In Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately in the sanctuary where they pray, with a divider between the two sides. At Mount Freedom Jewish Center, men sit on the right side of the sanctuary and the women sit on the left. The rabbi stands on the right side.
Kagedan discussed this with Rabbi Menashe East, who hired her at Mount Freedom Jewish Center. The two of them discussed the question of where she could stand while giving a sermon to the congregation. They then talked for a few minutes about how to simultaneously embrace her important new role while honoring the rules and traditions of religion that their ancestors had preserved for centuries.
Although Kagedan was only appointed in the beginning of 2016, the impact of her appointment has already been felt. A month or so after East introduced Kagedan to the congregation, he asked his eldest daughter what she would like to be when she grows up.
“‘Maybe I’ll be a rabbi,'” East recalls her saying. “”Yeah, I could be like Rabbi Lila.'”