A woman with short hair in a gray sweater sitting at a table and smiling
Last spring, the Central Conference of American Rabbis met for the 130th time. This leadership organization of the Jewish Reform movement—the largest stream of Judaism in the United States—is one of the most influential voices of any progressive religious tradition. In 1890, the room was packed with 90 rabbis, all men, all white, mostly of German extraction (the Reform movement originated in Germany in the 19th century), guided by the principles set out by the founder of the first American Reform synagogue, Isaac Mayer Wise: “In the name of God and Israel, [the rabbi] must be a bearer of light and truth. ... Rabbis must be people of peace and good will; they must conciliate wherever they can, but must always be strong in the declaration of truth without fear or favor.”

The CCAR crowd looked very different 130 years later. The audience included white men, of course, but the conference hall was also filled with women, people of color and nonbinary folks. And the rabbi taking the stage for the keynote was not a man, did not hail from a Reform family, was kicked out of Hebrew school as a youngster, holds an advanced art degree and has never been a pulpit rabbi. That was Hara Person ’86, and as she pointed out that day, it’s doubtful that any of those original 90 rabbis could have pictured her stepping behind that lectern.

But who can blame them? A decade or two ago, Person herself couldn’t have imagined it. Not because she was a woman, though. The first female rabbi in the United States, Sally Priesand, was ordained in 1972, when Person was a young girl. Her ordination rocked the Jewish world. Person was shocked, too, but for a different reason: “I was shocked because it had never occurred to me that women couldn’t be rabbis. It didn’t cross my mind that it was something I couldn’t do,” she says. This was at the height of the second wave of feminism, and like many girls across America, Person was receiving mixed messages—one from her parents, another from the culture at large. “I was raised to think that I could do anything I wanted to do, that there were no limitations on me as a girl.”

Lucky thing, because soon Person would be drawn to a profession that had long been reserved for men: the rabbinate. While Person had indeed been kicked out of the religious school at the local Conservative synagogue (“We think she’d be happier elsewhere”), that wasn’t the end of her Jewish education. Despite having no prior experience with the Reform movement—Person’s dad came from a family of Russian socialists who provided him with no Jewish education, and her mother grew up in the New York religious mishmash affectionately called “conservadox”—the family shifted to the Reform synagogue. Person found herself in the thrall of the rabbi there, who ran counter to everything she’d previously thought it meant to be Jewish. “We were living in an area that wasn’t very Jewish. It was Brooklyn, but not Jewish Brooklyn,” she explains. “I didn’t know a lot of Jews at the time who were excited and enthusiastic about being Jewish. For most people I knew, being Jewish was a little bit embarrassing. Some people actively hid it.” But this rabbi was loud and proud. “I thought he was the coolest—so excited, so positive. He would walk around the neighborhood wearing a kippah, and I thought that was amazing. So I decided I wanted to be a rabbi too.”

And so, by her own admission, Person became “a poster child for religious school.” She got very involved, starting up the first youth group and first confirmation class. “I was that kid,” Person laughs. “Really into it. And then when I went to college, I continued to be very involved in Jewish life.” Person did not take many religion courses at Amherst, but her extracurricular life took on a strong religious flavor, with many of her closest friends being those she met through Hillel. “We would have Shabbat dinner together and do holidays together,” she says. Ironically, considering that Amherst had been founded to train men as Protestant ministers, it was here that Person met one of the most influential rabbis of her life—Yechiel Lander, who headed Hillel groups at both Amherst and Smith for decades, and under whose guidance many of Person’s peers would find themselves pursuing the rabbinate, too.

First she was kicked out of Hebrew school. Then she became a rabbi.

One of those peers was Barry Block ’85, who met Person when she was a new first-year student. Both were Jewish, and both were at Amherst College; there, Block says, the similarities ended. They became fast friends, but their differences were evident. When Block would open doors for Person, for example, she seemed taken aback. “She couldn’t fathom it—to her, it was from the 1850s,” he says. Block remembers Person not only as someone who stood firmly in her convictions but also as an excellent student with a genuine love of learning.

And he says it was clear, to him anyway, that she would eventually parlay her deep love of Judaism, her powerful sense of social justice and her curious mind to life as a rabbi. “I knew she would be a rabbi long before she did,” laughs Block, who went on to attend Hebrew Union College, a major training ground for Reform rabbis. “I made fun of her when she didn’t apply to HUC when I did. I was like, ‘Come on, Hara!’ But she insisted it was not her thing.”

The kid who’d once announced her rabbinic ambitions had grown into a young woman with different ideas—and that shift took place in, of all places, Israel, which she had visited in her late teens. It was a life-changing, profound trip, and when she came back, her connection to Judaism had evolved. “I realized in Israel that I didn’t need to be a professional Jew to be a fulfilled Jew,” Person says simply. “So I decided not to be a rabbi, which was actually a really healthy choice.” Letting go of that idea opened up multiple pathways. She threw herself into art, something she loved. She moved back to Israel after graduating from Amherst to study art in Tel Aviv, and then headed back to the States to pursue a master of arts and fine arts at New York University and the International Center of Photography, focusing on mixed media and installation.

But when she was back in the city, Person began attending her old synagogue again—and slowly but surely, she realized she was spending a lot of time there. “This was the late ’80s and early ’90s, and the city was dealing with two major issues: homelessness and the AIDS crisis. A lot of art was being made about both,” she recalls. “At the same time, my synagogue was running a homeless shelter. I was supervising a team to buy food for it, and doing a massive project to grocery shop and provide companionship for people with AIDS. I realized that the work in the synagogue was feeling more meaningful than the art being made on the same topics.” And there was something else, too—something harder to quantify. “I realized I just loved engaging from the Jewish space, in a Jewish way. I loved teaching. I loved the values piece. I loved the rabbi—it was a different rabbi at this point. And all of it made me think that I should reconsider rabbinical school.” At this point she was married and had a baby; going back to school yet again felt daunting. “But I decided, even though it was a crazy choice, to go for it.”

Three rabbi reading a Torah scroll at a pulpit
Person reads Torah at the 130th convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which she heads. It is the leadership organization of the Jewish Reform movement. | Central Conference of American Rabbis

The keynote last spring, in Cincinnati, ended with a scene that the founder of the American Reform movement, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, definitely could not have imagined. Toward the end of her speech, Person began talking about an object that she had loved as a child: a toy rabbi. “This is surely the first time in the history of the CCAR that someone in my position has stood up here and talked about dolls,” she said to a cheering audience, and then placed said doll on the lectern. It was one of a collection of professional figurines—teacher, nurse, firefighter. This one was clearly a rabbi; you could tell from the tallit, but more than that, it was his long white beard, heavy black robe and, well, old-white-man self. “I don’t look much like him,” Person admitted from the stage. “In so many ways—a thought which has been much on my mind these last months.” After all, part of her responsibility is to help future rabbis see themselves in a rabbinate that is changing. She knows that’s not just a matter of setting policy. It’s also a matter of stepping into a space that had historically almost never looked like her.

Block sees Person ably taking on this responsibility. “Hara has spoken about how, when she was ordained, she thought she was taking a lesser path, because she was going to be working part-time, because she had young children,” her Amherst friend and fellow rabbi points out. “She has said she would never have imagined the path she ended up on. But the same is true of her classmates who go a more standard route. No one knows the outcome. I don’t think we know where we’re heading, but we do know there’s a vastly changing world in Jewish life and in the rabbinate, and that we rabbis need to meet Jews where they are. I see Hara as the leader in the reinvention, the continuing reinvention of the rabbinate into the next decades and the future.”

I see Hara as a leader in the continuing reinvention of the rabbinate,” says Barry Block ’85.

It isn’t just the rabbinate that’s undergoing a reinvention—it’s Person, too, as she grows into this leadership role. “In the last few months, I’ve gone from being a specialist as a rabbi to being a generalist,” she says. “And it’s a lot to learn.” When she was a writer, editor and publisher, problems were mostly on the page, and mostly solvable with a red pen. Now the challenges are living and breathing: rabbis who need support, congregational boards in crisis.

Person’s daily life today moves almost as quickly as the news cycle, in part because she must respond to it. One of her more public roles is co-authoring the CCAR statements in response to current events: the refugee crisis, reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues. “These statements are generally written quickly, so there’s a balance of urgency and careful thought,” she says. “There’s been more in the past two years—the 2016 election changed the landscape. Some things feel dire. We’re an organization that believes in democracy and rule of law, and equality and speaking out for the vulnerable.”

Back to the speech in Cincinnati. After placing that vintage rabbi doll on the lectern, Person brought out another—one a friend created on a 3-D printer, just for her. This doll was also wearing black, also wearing a tallit, but was standing with a slightly irreverent attitude, head cocked. This doll was wearing glasses like Person’s, and had brown hair like Person’s. “Here she is,” Person said, smiling, “a woman rabbi figure who—maybe—looks a lot like me.” As Person put the doll on the lectern, right next to the older figurine, the new doll looked perfectly at home. So, for that matter, did Person herself. “So here he is, and here she is. The old image of a rabbi and the new. Here they are together,” Person continued, gesturing at the two figures perched side by side. “And here we are, together, as we head into the future of the CCAR.”

Naomi Shulman’s work has appeared in The New York Times, in The Washington Post and on New England Public Radio, among other places. Her children’s book Be Kind: You Can Make the World a Happier Place was released last summer. She wrote the Fall 2019 Amherst magazine cover story on Thayer Greene ’50.

Photography by Peter Ross