First woman named president of rabbi board

A suburban rabbi will become the first woman to head a major board of rabbis in the United States when she takes over as president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis in May.

Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus of B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom, a Reform synagogue in Homewood, is to be installed as president of the Chicago board May 16, Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the board, said Tuesday.

No woman has ever headed one of the "big five" boards of rabbis in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Miami, Youdovin said.

Dreyfus will serve a two-year term at the helm of the Chicago board, which represents about 200 Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox rabbis.

Dreyfus, 49, was the first woman rabbi in Illinois when she was ordained in 1979.

The first Reform woman rabbi, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972. The Reconstructionist denomination ordained its first woman rabbi in 1974, and the Conservative movement followed suit in 1985. Orthodox Jews do not ordain women.

"She was really a pioneer for the women who came after her," Rabbi Karyn Kedar, director of the Great Lakes Region for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform Jewish denominational organization, said of Dreyfus. "She combines a great sense of warmth and compassion and rabbinical authority, which is a rare gift and something that those who came after used as a role model."

"She is one of the leading rabbis" in the Midwest, Kedar said. "She has definitely paid her dues and deserves it and is more than capable of serving it with distinction."

As president of the board of rabbis, Dreyfus will become a member of the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago, an association of the most powerful ecclesial figures in the region. The group includes Cardinal Francis George, local Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox bishops and seminary presidents.

"I view the position with some trepidation and also some excitement," Dreyfus said. "I know it's going to take a good deal of time, and rabbis never have enough time."

Dreyfus recently was chosen to be part of a prestigious program at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She is one of about 30 rabbis from North America who will spend each July for the next three years studying in Israel.

Plain-spoken and straightforward, Dreyfus, who is married and has three children, remains unimpressed by her achievements "as a woman."

"As one of the early women to be ordained, I knew all along that I would be setting these benchmarks and functioning as a role model for other women, to some extent as an oddity in the community," Dreyfus said. "It doesn't thrill me. Perhaps it should, but it doesn't. It goes with the territory."

A native of Hyde Park, Dreyfus attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and Jerusalem.

She served congregations in Michigan and Kankakee before becoming rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom in Park Forest in 1987. Dreyfus served there until 1998, when the congregation merged with B'nai Yehuda, and she became rabbi of the new combined congregation, with about 300 families.

"She's a terrific rabbi," said David Gottlieb, B'nai Yehuda Beth Sholom's president. "She appeals to all ages. ... Part of why it's worked so well is she was able to bring us together."

Rabbi Michael Weinberg of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Dreyfus' younger brother, who was ordained a year after his sister, said her sense of humor as well as her approach to Judaism make her a good rabbi.

"She takes the things that need to be taken seriously seriously, but she doesn't take herself too seriously," Weinberg said. "She's committed to finding the intersection between a commitment to values that we learn from Jewish tradition and the values that we learn from modernity.

"There are a lot of people who choose one or the other, but balancing that in a way that is faithful and true to each requires some artistry."