First woman to work as a rabbi in Israel pursues her dreams

Kinneret Shiryon: Bringing her ideas to fruition.

 Kinneret Shiryon (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kinneret Shiryon
(photo credit: Courtesy)

‘I’m just a regular person who had a dream,” says Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon. “And I did it.”

Rabbi Shiryon is both a dreamer and a doer. She was the first woman to work as a congregational rabbi in the history of the State of Israel, and chairs the 25th-anniversary celebration for the congregation she founded, Kehillat YOZMA, the Reform Jewish Community in Modi’in.

It began in the late ’70s: In 1977, Rabbi Shiryon received her BA in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, which she combined with Hebrew Studies at Haifa University and Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She received an MA in Hebrew Literature from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980 and a Doctor of Divinity Degree in 2006.

Always one to give credit, Rabbi Shiryon attributes her fluency in Hebrew to the ulpan at Haifa University.

She has received much recognition over the years, both in the US and in Israel. She’s been awarded the Stephen S. Wise Medal of Academic Excellence; has been recognized by the US National Environmental Protection Agency; received a Medal of Appreciation from the State of California for her contribution to the Jewish community in Los Angeles; and was honored by the Rabbi Samuel S. and A. Irma Cohon Memorial Foundation for her work in building Jewish identity.

In her hometown, the city of Modi’in named her the Career Woman of the Year in 2000. And in another first – she was the first woman to lead a rabbinical council in the State of Israel when she became the head of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis.

The Magazine sat down with her to get more of her story.

From a childhood home in Schenectady, New York, to a degree at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, what drove you along this Jewish trajectory?

The credit goes to my family. I was born Sandra Levine in 1955, and there were not many Jews then in Schenectady. Yet I was raised with a very strong Jewish identity. We belonged to a Conservative synagogue, which was our family’s second home. In elementary school, I became the spokesperson for Jewish life. And I actually enjoyed that position.

When the family moved to San Jose, California, there were no Conservative synagogues in the area, so my parents started a chavura, though it wasn’t called a chavura back then. My job was to teach the little kids. As an aside, when I started Kehillat YOZMA, I started with the little kids.

When I was 15 years old, I met a rabbi who studied with his students and played basketball with them. He became my role model. Though he was ordained at the Telshe Yeshiva, a haredi institution, he did not discourage me from becoming a rabbi. In fact, he said, “I think you would make an excellent rabbi.”

After moving to Israel in 1983, you began your rabbinical career at Kehillat Ramat Aviv in Tel Aviv. After seven years you decided to move to Modi’in. Why?

I wanted the opportunity to build something of my own, with my vision; something I would have my thumbprint on, taking all my ideas and bringing them to fruition.

How did Kehillat YOZMA get started?

I started the congregation with a preschool class in 1997. At a municipal fair promoting Modi’in’s preschools, I was able to attract 24 families. They were drawn to the values of our program, where free choice is based on knowledge. YOZMA means “initiative” in Hebrew and is an acronym for Yahadut Zmaneinu Moreshet Ha’Am – Judaism of our Time, Heritage of our People.

One of your goals was and is: to expose Israel to liberal Judaism. Did you succeed?

There are many markers of success. I’ll name but three:

1. Currently, 1,000 families are impacted by YOZMA.

2. Several new congregations have been built on our model.

3. The YOZMA Elementary School was the first State-recognized Reform public elementary Jewish day school in Israel (grades 1-6).

And another first for you: under your leadership, YOZMA was the first non-Orthodox congregation to have its building funded by the State. It was an 11-year legal battle that reached the Supreme Court. Any credits you want to share?

A: Isaac Herzog, the current president, was then Construction and Housing minister. He was very helpful in moving along our petition. In fact, President Herzog has honored us by accepting our invitation to address our 25th Anniversary Gala on January 6.

We are also indebted to The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) for their contribution to our victory.

You’ve been named a “feminist spiritual innovator” and a “trailblazer.” At the same time, you and your late husband, Baruch, were able to raise four children. What tips do you have for balancing congregational duties with family life?

My late husband, Baruch, was very supportive. We didn’t have stereotypical ideas of what a husband or a wife should be doing. We shared all the responsibilities of maintaining a household.

In 2007, you went with the Modi’in mayor to tour Reform congregations in the US with the Zionist message: Living in Israel is the best way to fulfill a Jewish life. Are you travelling much today?

I had a difficult time after Baruch died five years ago and I found some solace in traveling around the globe – to Rome, Bangkok, Tasmania, New Zealand, Bali – bringing Reform Jewish life into different corners of the world. 

After retiring from YOZMA in 2017, you remained as rabbi emerita in the congregation. In addition to your spiritual counseling, lecturing, studying Arabic, learning Qi Gong and babysitting for your five grandchildren, what else do you do in your free time? 

What free time? 

Kinneret ShiryonFrom Santa Monica, CA, to Tel Aviv, then Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut, 1983