When becoming a bat mitzvah in the late 1970s, Rabbi Debra Orenstein told congregants at her Conservative synagogue in New Jersey that she planned to follow six generations of her family into the rabbinate when she grew up.

“Not in my lifetime, and probably not in yours,” said Dr. Gerson D. Cohen, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and a bat mitzvah guest, alluding to her gender.

But Rabbi Orenstein wasn’t deterred. After graduating from Princeton University, she became a member of the first JTS class to include women. As it turned out, Cohen would live long enough to ordain her.

Rabbi Orenstein’s anecdote is one of 18 comprising “Stories from the Fringe: Women Rabbis Revealed,” a staged reading to be presented March 30 at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts in Owings Mills. The reading will be followed by a group discussion with local woman rabbis led by Rabbi Jessy Gross, director of Charm City Tribe and director of Jewish Learning and Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore.

Written by Rabbi Lynne Kern Appel and Ronda Spinak, and developed and originally performed at the Los Angeles Jewish Women’s Theatre, the show is a collaboration between the Gordon Center and Strand Theater in Northeast Baltimore.

In a telephone interview, Spinak said she came up with the concept for “Stories from the Fringe” after founding the Jewish Women’s Theatre in 2005. At the time, her Torah study group was discussing “the way women’s stories are often sidelined. I started thinking about all the women’s stories that have not been told,” she said.

In particular, Spinak said that she was curious about the stories of women rabbis and that the growing number of women entering the rabbinate signaled what she calls “the biggest transformation [for Judaism] since the Chasidic movement.”

In the spring of 2009, she and Rabbi Appel reached out to 18 rabbis with the goal of staging their stories.

“Women rabbis don’t usually tell stories [about themselves]. What are the obstacles? What is it like to be the only woman in the class?” said Spinak. “We culled through 1,000 pages of transcripts and found the most poignant, moving, historic and funny stories from the lives of these women.”

Spinak said the play includes the experiences of spiritual leaders ranging from Rabbi Laura Geller, one of the first women ordained by the Reform movement, to Rabbi Naomi Levy, a female pioneer in the Conservative movement, and Rabbi Rebecca Dubowe, the nation’s first deaf female rabbi, to Rabbi Rochelle Kamins, who is known to have tattoos and rides a motorcycle.

Bari Hochwald, a Baltimore newcomer and veteran actor/director, has acted in productions of “Stories from the Fringe” in Los Angeles and elsewhere. She will direct and act in the Baltimore premiere.

“When I moved here, I knew [the play] should be heard in Baltimore,” said Hochwald. “This is about women’s equality. It’s also a play about the human spirit, about following dreams and doing everything we can do to fulfill them.”

To make the local debut of “Stories from the Fringe” a reality, Hochwald reached out to Elena Kostakis, executive director of the Strand, Rabbi Gross and Randi Benesch, senior managing director of arts and culture at the Gordon Center, to explore the possibility of a collaboration.

“The Strand is the only theater company in the Baltimore area dedicated to women playwrights and plays with primarily women characters,” said Kostakis. “Nationally, less than 20 percent of theater productions are written or acted by women. We have a very important mission.”

Also, Kostakis said promoting collaborative productions is crucial to the Strand’s mission. “So in that sense, the play is also perfect for us,” she said.

Benesch agreed. “The prospect of collaborating with the Strand Theater and Bari [Hochwald] was an exciting one for us. And collaborating with my colleague Rabbi Jessy Gross to explore the stories of female rabbis through storytelling and the arts felt like a really wonderful fit,” she said. “We try to use art as a vehicle for exploring relevant topics and sparking conversation … and this felt like the perfect opportunity to do so.”

For information about “Stories from the Fringe,” visit jcc.org/gordon-center.
PHOTO: Actresses Lisa Cirincione, Lisa Robins and Kate Zentall perform a live reading of “Stories From the Fringe.” Photo courtesy of JWT and Jan Burn

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