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Class notes: Leading rabbi got her start at Fairhaven College

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Never be afraid to ask Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (’74) a question.

It was a question – lots of them – at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies that helped launch her career.

Dreyfus, now a pioneering woman rabbi and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, remembers being peppered with questions during her time at Fairhaven. One of few Jewish students at the college, Dreyfus became her classmates’ de-facto source for all things Jewish.

“People asked me lots of questions and I didn’t know the answers,” Dreyfus says. “I found I really wanted to learn the answers.”

It was during the Vietnam War. Dreyfus, a Chicago native, had been a medic at anti-war riots at her first college, the University of Wisconsin, and found the experience made it difficult to focus on her studies there. A family friend lived in Bellingham, and Dreyfus came out to Fairhaven.

But when her professor, Bob Keller, asked the class to write a position paper about war, Dreyfus was stumped.

“After a process of soul searching, I realized I couldn’t come up with my own position about war without knowing what Judaism said about it,” she says. “I got hooked on studying this stuff.”

But career choices were limited for Judaica-loving women in 1974. Few schools had Jewish studies departments, and the first woman rabbi had been ordained just two years earlier. But Dreyfus was drawn to the variety of roles rabbis play.

“I love to teach, and rabbi means ‘teacher,’ ” she says.

So Dreyfus attended Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion and in 1979 became the 11th woman ordained from the nation’s main seminary for Reform rabbis.

“As far as we know, I was the first rabbi ever ordained while pregnant,” she says.

Earlier this year, she also became the second woman ever elected president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the 1,800-member organization of Reform rabbis. She’s an important figure in the Reform movement, handling issues ranging from assisting rabbis unemployed by the recession, to questions about Israel, to concerns about Jewish education and intermarriage, she says.

“We’re trying to figure out what will be the face of Reform Judaism in the 21st Century,” she says.

Meanwhile, Dreyfus is also proud of the children she raised while building her career. Her oldest son, a 30-year-old high school physics teacher who was in his mother’s womb when she was ordained, just got married – to a rabbi.