(JTA) — After graduating from an American rabbinical program this month, a French woman has likely become her country’s first Orthodox female rabbi.
Myriam Ackermann-Sommer, 26, has since last year been running Ayeka, one of Paris’ only Modern Orthodox congregations, with her husband Emile Ackermann. He also earned a rabbinical degree this month from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Orthodox seminary in New York City.
Ackermann-Sommer graduated from its partner school for women, Yeshivat Maharat, which has an equivalent curriculum and ordains its students as clergy, some of whom take on the title “rabbi” or a variation on that word. Both schools were founded by Avi Weiss, a rabbi long known for advocating for women in Orthodox spaces.
Now, with their degrees, they are qualified to adjudicate matters of Jewish law for their congregants, something Ackermann-Sommer calls a “tremendous responsibility.”
“Jewish girls in France grow up surrounded by women who excel in all areas of civilian life. They are lawyers, doctors, teachers… but all of our rabbis are long-bearded men! We need women to be involved in Jewish life as well,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on the phone the day before her ordination on June 15.
Orthodoxy, which traditionally prohibits women from leading prayer services or becoming rabbis, has long been the predominant Jewish denomination in France, which is home to close to 450,000 Jews, or one of the world’s largest Jewish populations. Some liberal segments of Modern Orthodoxy, a subset of the denomination that strives to adapt traditional Jewish observance to contemporary life, have ordained women as rabbis and permitted them to lead some parts of services. But that approach is more widespread in countries such as the United States and Israel.
“This is a historic moment in the history of French Judaism,” said Michaël de Saint Chéron. The French philosopher and expert on religion recently co-wrote a book about what it’s like to convert to Judaism or “come back” to the Jewish fold later in life with Ackermann-Sommer that will be published in October. “They are an example for many. Other women have already followed in Ackermann-Sommer’s footsteps and started studying to be rabbis themselves.”
There are only believed to be five other women rabbis in France, all under the liberal umbrella — similar to the Reform movement in the United States. Delphine Horvilleur, who has made headlines for actively promoting women’s voices in Judaism in recent years, is among the most well-known.
Ayeka regularly draws 50 people for Shabbat services, and women are separated from men, per Orthodox practice, by a divider that seats them side by side. The congregation holds prayers according to the standards of what is known as a “partnership minyan” — a model that is followed in a number of liberal Orthodox congregations, largely in the United States and Israel, in which women can chant weekly Torah readings and lead certain portions of services.
“Some are perfectly alright with how Orthodox communities work and that’s great for them. I, as a woman, am outraged whenever I’m at the synagogue and I cannot hear or see what is going on because I’m seated far away in the back behind the men or on a balcony where I can’t hear very well,” Ackermann-Sommer said. “We offer a response to women, among others, who want more participation in the ritual and in the study.”
Some in France have criticized the couple’s philosophy. Others believe the whole concept of Modern Orthodoxy to be illegitimate.
“In Jewish tradition, the notion of modernity does not mean anything at all, the strength of Judaism is that there has been no change since Mount Sinai,” said Rabbi Yves Marciano, longtime rabbi of the Orthodox Les Tournelles Synagogue in Paris, which is situated a few minutes from where Ayeka is located. “Therefore ‘Modern Orthodox,’ it is a very ambiguous concept.”
But Ackermann said their movement does not aim to be “a revolution.”
“We hope to be able to show the French Jewish community that we do not want to reform or fight existing communities but merely open new doors,” he said.
With friend Tali Trèves-Fitoussi, Ackermann-Sommer also offers a series of study courses for women (and men) called Kol-Elles — a play on the words “kollel,” the term for a group of Jewish scholars who study together, and the French female pronoun “elle.” She also runs a podcast called “Daf Yummy,” a play on the practice of Daf Yomi, the practice of studying one double-sided page of the Babylonian Talmud per day.
“Those who come here have an intellectual and spiritual thirst. They are not only women who come as feminists, and the topics studied aren’t only related to women obviously, it’s about getting to know Jewish tradition the way it has long only been taught to men,” Ackermann-Sommer explained.
Trèves-Fitoussi has been a member of Ayeka from its start.
“I wasn’t really going to synagogue anymore as I always felt out of place. Ayeka is the only one where I would go. Modern Orthodoxy makes me feel included. Here, I feel like I exist,” said Trèves-Fitoussi.
Those who join Ayeka “have been looking for another way to be Jewish, a way where men and women have very similar roles and where both men and women can assert their identity as men or women while strictly following Jewish tradition,” Saint-Chéron said. “Ten men are still needed to complete a minyan [prayer quorum], but Ackermann-Sommer can then be the one reading the ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’ [prayer] for instance.”
Ackermann-Sommer was raised in a non-religious household. She discovered Judaism as a teenager through the teachings of her uncle, Alexis Blum, who was rabbi of the community in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb near Paris. She only started actively studying Jewish texts after meeting her husband in 2017.
Marciano is cautious about how Ayeka will blend into France’s religious fabric.
“There are way fewer liberal Jews in France than in the U.S., I don’t see how their movement will fit in here, but we have to give time to time. I have no doubt they will have followers. And I don’t mind, the sun shines for everyone,” he said.
Despite the fact that Ackermann-Sommer lives in Paris, she studied at Yeshivat Maharat remotely and is promoting the school to other French women. Her goal: send as many Orthodox women to study there as possible and help them become Jewish leaders in France. About 10 new rabbis are ordained every year at Yeshivat Maharat; as of now, two French women are studying there and will be ordained in the next two years.
“Our hope is that we initiate a movement that goes way beyond us,” she said.