Down Under Conservative Rabbi Profiled

From the ABC Sydney:

Hello and welcome to Sunday Profile. I’m Monica Attard and tonight Rabbi Melissa Weintraub who’s on a peace mission!

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is one of a growing number of women rabbis.

Ordained as a Conservative Rabbi in New York, her great passion takes her much further a field, back to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

You see she’s the co-founder of Encounter, a peace building organisation that does something not widely known and not widely done. She takes influential Jews from around the world into Hebron and the West Bank to sit face to face with ordinary Palestinians and witness first hand, the realities of their life there.

Ironically she can’t take Israeli Jews there because they’re forbidden from entering the territories at all.

She says the meetings are often very moving and she hopes, they might do more than merely create more understanding. You see Melissa Weintraub hopes they’ll positively influence Israeli decision makers.

Peace is obviously something which has eluded the Middle East and may well again with news this week that the embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who had begun peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will step down in the face of corruption allegations.

EHUD OLMERT: When a new chairman will be elected for the party I will resign from my duties as prime minister in order to allow the chairman to create a new government quickly and efficiently.

MONICA ATTARD: Despite the set-back of Ehud Olmert’s resignation, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she’ll press ahead for a peace deal before the end of this year.

Well, our guest Rabbi Weintraub, is quietly working towards the same goal.

But I began by asking her what it takes to become a Rabbi.

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: It’s a five year process depending on the process depending on the background of which one comes in and it’s very traditional text study, we study Talmud and halakha, ancient Jewish codex of law and thought for five years with a smattering of Jewish literature and history, pastoral counselling as well and some practical rabbinics.

MONICA ATTARD: And what made you want to become a Rabbi?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I was always seeking a way to become a therapist and an activist and an academic all at once. So it was a way of being both a scholar and being in the trenches, finding a way to engage with ideas while also very much relieving human anguish and being involved with the life of the world.

MONICA ATTARD: And have you come from a kind of orthodox Jewish background, your family? Was it something that you actually grew up with?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I grew up in a hybrid Jewish family; I like to say that there was religious pluralism at my kitchen table as a child. I grew up in the only kosher home in a small town in the middle of America, in the heartland.
My mum drove three hours for kosher meat and filled the freezers in our house with kosher meat and my daddy has bacon cheese burgers on paper plates in the kitchen.


MELISSA WEINTRAUB: So I really was exposed to different paths up the mountain right from the start which I see very much as a source of the work of the peace building work that I’m doing now because I have that kind of bifocal vision of being inside and outside a religious culture and also the larger context in which I lived.

MONICA ATTARD: So would you say at this point in time that it was more the social issues, the pastoral care issues that drew you to where you are now? Or the religious tradition?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I can’t single out religious and cultural issues because for me they’re so bound up with each other. Me religious commitment is all about relieving suffering. It’s something I see as a religious obligation, we are called as Jews to have the opposite affair as hard and heart to respond to human suffering and that means always cultivating a kind of stance of open heartness to the pain of the world and doing everything we can to relieve it.

MONICA ATTARD: And of course in the heartland of Judaism there certainly is a lot of heartache, but we’ll come to those issues in a moment. Are you recognised as a Rabbi by all the traditions and codes of Judaism?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I’m recognised by all of Judaism’s liberal nominations and I was ordained within the most traditional denomination that still recognises women as Rabbi’s.
So I suppose in Australian Christian terms we correspond to the Anglican end of the spectrum. There are those who are more traditional than us and those that are more liberal than us.

MONICA ATTARD: Yes I was going to say there… is the same kind of split or debate in Anglicanism. Is it as furious and as fast in Judaism as it seems to be in Anglicanism in the world at the moment?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: In certain denominations it is, I think these questions have been really laid to rest.
In my own denomination women have been ordained for 20 years, 50 per cent of my seminary consists of women. Women are participating in all rules of religious life, marrying people and burying people and leading services and giving sermons and really engaging fully in the religious public sphere and it’s no longer a live question in the same way.
For Orthodox women there are still really, it’s a very cutting edge debate.

MONICA ATTARD: Is there one kernel of advice or truth that you would pass on to your brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church as they grapple with this issue of the ordination of women?

Is there something that holds the key to what is right?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: I think that the important thing in embracing religious tradition is to recognise that there’s always text and context and purpose and in Judaism for example, traditionalists will point to passages that talk about the importance of women stepping back from the public sphere because it’s seen as a kind of degradation of men, of disrespect to men for women to assume those rules and that there’s really a traditional split in the public and private sphere.

And we live in a different historical context where those sociological assumptions no longer hold and where the purpose of the text and the intent of the text no longer holds.

So my advice to Anglican women is to be patient and to keep engaging in what I call exogetical rivalry over the meanings of your tradition and seeking out the deeper values and deeper context of that tradition.

MONICA ATTARD: So would you say at this point in time that from your perspective, the debate within Judaism is actually moving forward for women?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Absolutely, it’s clear the direction in which the community is moving, even in the most traditional Jewish communities, women are having greater and greater access to public rules.

MONICA ATTARD: Ok, now the role of a Rabbi of course is one that has traditionally been focused on questions of Jewish law and teachings and philosophy rather than pastoral care.
You’re doing something that’s actually very, very different aren’t you, through an organisation which you created called Encounter.

What do you do Melissa in Encounter?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: We bring Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum into Palestinian cities and the West Bank. We have been the most significant Jewish non-military presence in Palestinian areas in the West Bank since before the second Intifada and it’s the most religiously and politically diverse groups ever to participate in people to people initiatives for bringing hardliners and people who indentify with the centre and the right of the political spectrum and this is very new and challenging and for many of our participants, many of them come with great trepidation, emotional and physical.

MONICA ATTARD: I can imagine.


MONICA ATTARD: Does it oppose security issues?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: The best way to protect oneself, engaging with Palestinians is to come clearly as a friendly presence, travelling with people who have enormous street credibility, recognition and we have very deep relationships with our Palestinian partners and there’s hundreds of Palestinians involved with the program so we don’t feel any security risk.
There’s always danger of a kind of freak or fringe kind of attack but that would be true if we were walking through the streets of Melbourne or Paris or Jerusalem for that matter.

MONICA ATTARD: Sure, but when you say ‘going in with people who are friendly towards Palestinians, do you mean going in with Palestinians?

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: Yeah, everything that we do on our program is with a very strong Palestinian presence. Not friendly towards Palestinians but Palestinians who are recognised among other Palestinians as having credibility are with us at all times. So that we’re recognised as a friendly presence not an invasive or military presence.

MONICA ATTARD: It seems so simple doesn’t it when you look at the problems that the Middle East has faced that Jews and Arabs could come together and yet they don’t, there’s very little social interaction.

MELISSA WEINTRAUB: These are two societies that are bypassing each other everyday. People often come on our trip and say this is the twilight zone, you know. I’ve lived in Israel off and on for 10, 15 years and I didn’t know there was a whole other country here.

To tell you one story, a woman named Ariel who grew up in an Orthodox home in Baltimore came on the trip and at one point I saw there were tears streaming down her face and she said ‘I feel like this is the twilight zone, I realise that I’m seeing now what everyone around me has been blocking for years’ and just as she said that a church bell went off right over her head and she said ‘I think I’ve heard an echo of that bell in Jewish Jerusalem and thought I was hallucinating because everyone around me told me that bell didn’t exist’.

That’s the degree of the lack of recognition of even basic humanity and contact, there’s just total disconnect that she hadn’t even believed that that bell existed and being there it felt so undeniable and obvious connecting with people like her on the other side she felt great resonance with and those clicks happen so often on our trips.

To give you another example, we brought a group of really high level American Jewish leaders a few months ago and a woman, one of our Palestinian panellists is an up and coming Fatah leader and one of our American Jewish participants asked her, ‘what will the day after occupation look like?’ and the women responded, ‘I just want to be stopped by a Palestinian policeman’.

About Luke Ford

Raised a Seventh-Day Adventist at Avondale College in Australia, Luke Ford moved to California in 1977. He graduated from Placer High School in 1984, reported the news at KAHI/KHYL radio for three years, attended Sierra College and UCLA, was largely bedridden by Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for six years, and converted to Judaism in 1993. From 1997-2007, Luke made his living from blogging. Living by Beverly Hills (, he now teaches the Alexander Technique (moving the way the body likes to move). Lessons cost $100 each and last about 45 minutes. In 2011, Luke completed a three-year teaching course at the Alexander Training Institute of Los Angeles. His personal Alexander Technique website is Luke is the author of five books, including: » The Producers: Profiles in Frustration » Yesterday’s News Tomorrow: Inside American Jewish Journalism
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