Rabbi Lila Kagedan: A history-making title in Orthodox Judaism

Female rabbi: I wasn't sure who would hire me
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Story highlights

  • Lila Kagedan is the first woman to have the title of rabbi serving a U.S. Orthodox Jewish congregation.
  • Orthodox Jewish women before her have taken the title "rabba" -- or female Rabbi
  • An Orthodox rabbinical group has called the ordination of women as rabbis a violation of tradition

Randolph, New Jersey (CNN)Ten young children sit around a table as Lila Kagedan walks into their synagogue's after-school program. Paper plates filled with art supplies are waiting for them to tear into.

Kagedan introduces herself as the new rabbi at their synagogue. Not one of the elementary-school-aged children seems surprised.
    But her announcement is surprising -- historic, even: Kagedan, of Mount Freedom Jewish Center, is the first woman to have the title of rabbi serving an Orthodox congregation.
    It is a job she has dreamed of holding since she was a little girl, but rabbinical school did not exist for women in the Orthodox movement for most of her life.
    "Growing up the only model of rabbi in the Orthodox world were men," Kagedan says. "So in some ways this really didn't feel like an option."

    Calling herself 'Rabbi Kagedan'

    Rabbi Lila Kagedan says she "wanted my title to be the most accurate description of my training."
    Kagedan, 35, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Montreal. Her father, who passed away two years ago, was her "greatest teacher," studying Jewish texts with her on most nights and urging her to follow her dream.
    "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 studying Jewish texts with the hope that she could one day attend rabbinical school. And then, in 2009, a school called Yeshivat Maharat opened with the hope of helping women achieve leadership positions in the Orthodox Jewish community. Kagedan graduated in its third class.
    There have been Orthodox Jewish women before her who took the title "rabba," but Kagedan was firm in wanting 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."
    The idea of a female rabbi is not accepted by everyone in Orthodox Judaism. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), an organization made up of Orthodox rabbis, passed a resolution in October 2015 in response to Kagedan's school, Yeshivat Maharat, ordaining women as rabbis, calling it "a violation of our mesorah [tradition]" and saying the school's decision to do so was "a path that contradicts the norms of our community."
    When asked about Kagedan's new position, Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA's executive vice president, said the organization "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 she is a product of RCA education and that her greatest teachers were part of the organization. But, she hopes the group will come around to the idea of women leading congregations.
    Kagedan says she is certain "only positive outcomes will emerge  from having men and women working in the rabbinate and being accessible to the community."
    "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 she has been warmly welcomed by members of the Mount Freedom Jewish Center, about an hour outside of New York City, where her primary focus will be teaching. She sees herself as a rabbi there to serve both men and women, but understands why her position is so important to 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."

    Bigger than just her

    Kagedan's life is delicate balancing act between upholding Orthodox Jewish traditions that are dear to her, and pushing her own boundaries in this new role.
    Being a female rabbi has its range of challenges in an Orthodox setting -- even where to stand.
    Rabbi Menashe East, shown with his daughter Ayala, hired Kagedan at Mount Freedom Jewish Center.
    In Orthodox synagogues, men and women sit separately in the sanctuary when they pray, with a divider separating them. At Mount Freedom Jewish Center, men sit on the right side of the room, and women sit on the left. The rabbi stands on the right.
    Kagedan discussed this with Rabbi Menashe East, who hired her at the synagogue. Where could she stand when giving a sermon to the congregation? They chatted for a few minutes about how to simultaneously embrace her monumental new role while respecting the rules and traditions of the religion their ancestors have preserved for centuries.
    The impact of Kagedan's appointment at the beginning of 2016 is already being felt. A month or so after East introduced her to the congregation, he asked his eldest daughter what she wants to be when she grows up.
    "'Maybe I'll be a rabbi,'" East recalls her saying. "''Yeah, I could be like Rabbi Lila.'"