01/28/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

A Woman's Dreams -- in the World of Rabbis

Jewish unity is my eternal dream. And not only mine -- many Jews look back with longing to the moment of camping at Mount Sinai, about to receive the Torah, as the time when the Jewish people were like "one person with one heart" (commentary by Rashi on Exodus 19:2). Then there is the rest of history. Through dispersions both coerced and voluntary, Jewish cultures have developed over centuries in different parts of the world, so it is normal to have geographical and practical differences. But when the divisions among Jews become painful because of deep disagreements, it feels like a broken family. Jews are at the forefront of proclaiming peace in the world -- yet, can we have peace among ourselves?

The Academy for Jewish Religion California (AJRCA), a rabbinical, cantorial and chaplaincy School based in Los Angeles, was founded on the hope and faith that we can. It is a center of Jewish learning without denominational labels, egalitarian, grounded in love of Torah, prayer and song, and a deeply felt spirit of connectedness to the Jewish people and to God. Those who aspire to become rabbis, cantors and chaplains serving any segment of the Jewish world can come here and join with others of vastly different backgrounds, becoming richer for the new perspectives they gain. Our faculty represents the entire spectrum of Judaism, and their own commitment to egalitarian and democratic community is represented in their not adhering to any system of professorial ranks such as is taken for granted at most academic institutions.

This radical experiment has been my great source of hope these last 10 years, as I have participated in its faculty and administration. It has taken root, and continues to grow. Our graduates lead congregations and agencies across the country. The 100th graduate will pass through our ceremonies this year, which will mean 66 rabbis, 20 cantors and 14 chaplaincy specialists have been trained in this new setting. We have been led through these 12 years by dedicated, fearless Jewish spiritual leaders who saw the vision of a new kind of Jewish community, characterized by warmth, inclusiveness, creativity, and love of God and humanity.

Now, for the first time, a woman is taking the helm at AJRCA -- only the second woman ever to hold the presidency of a rabbinical school. What does it mean?

To me this is another step in fulfilling the promise of a truly inclusive Judaism, with the potential to unite the Jewish people. That I am not professional clergy is another important statement: Holding the vision of a healthy, vibrant Jewish life is not and should not be the responsibility of ordained religious professionals alone.

And as a woman? At AJRCA, I am fortunate to be part of an institution where gender is simply not an issue. But this is still rare. While females occupy more top positions than ever before, in both the non-profit and profit worlds, we should not be sanguine about our recent prominence. For thousands of years, women's voices have been excluded from the public realm in most societies and, even today, in many parts of the world, women are vastly disadvantaged.

Every time a woman steps into prominence in a field, thousands of unheard voices echo behind her. I think of the Torah's description of the "hosts" of women who thronged to the desert Tabernacle after the revelation at Sinai, offering their mirrors to be made into holy vessels (Exodus 38:8). What did they say, what were their hopes and dreams as this people set out on its mission to the world? We don't know. Only rarely were women's voices recorded.

Yet the Jewish Sages tell us that the Torah was given to women as well -- indeed, first to the women, then to the men. "Say to the house of Jacob" -- meaning the women -- "and tell the sons of Israel" (Rashi on Exodus 19:3). We need to respond to that holy Saying in our own words. So a part of the dream of Jewish unity is that women will be heard, as clearly as men.

As president, I will be representing the entire academy, men and women. And in that role, I will be listening for the generations of unheard voices, and trying to look with their wise, searching eyes into the Jewish future.