September 21, 2019

Alumna challenges gender roles in Jerusalem

Samantha Thal used leadership skills and her love for Judaism to become a female rabbi. 

Webster Alumni Samantha Thal traveled across the world to pursue her dream of becoming a Rabbi. Thal graduated from Webster in 2017, but she moved to Jerusalem, Israel, to study through Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew learning program.

Graphic by Nermina Ferkić

“I’m really lucky I never grew up in a time where I even questioned the idea that I could be a Rabbi because a lot of the Reform Rabbis in St. Louis are female,” Thal said.  

Thal said it is more common now to have people of all genders in leadership and clergy positions in modern liberal movements of Judaism. In Orthodox Judaism, female rabbis remain uncommon.

Thal said her class includes more than half of female identifying and LGBTQ+ students. According to Thal, there is a movement of liberal Judaism in Israel, but it is very small and is still very much a minority. 

Thal said becoming a Rabbi involves a great effort of leadership in addition to Jewish study. A combination of these two areas interested Thal to become a Rabbi. 

When Thal was a freshman at Webster, seniors founded Tribe — the Jewish Student Council. Tribe met with various religious clubs from different colleges in St. Louis. Later, Tribe assigned Thal as the president and treasurer. “We had great interfaith conversations and realizing that most religions have so much more in common than it divides us,” Thal said. “Webster is such a diverse community and its really cool to learn from that.” 

Marcy Thal said she cautioned about hovering because she wanted Samantha Thal to stay independent. Marcy Thal wanted her daughter to make her own decision apart from her parents’ opinions. 

“I want her to be happy and feel like what she’s doing has value,” Marcy Thal said. “She’s not really money motivated. She’s much more motivated by helping others and seeing them be successful and happy.” Marcy Thal said Thal will find a way to be successful and happy with whatever she decides to do in the future.

Marcy Thal said becoming a Rabbi fits Thal’s personality, and was one of Marcy’s possibilities when she was Thal’s age. She said she hopes she passed the enthusiasm for Rabbinical school, but she said she takes no credit for Thal’s successes.

Being away from family is always challenging, Thal said, but what she enjoys the most in the program is the other people enlisted. 

“When you get a group of people together that all want to be clergy, it’s a great group of people that’s really supportive of each other, and we’re all learning and practicing to be leaders of the community,” Thal said. “We’re all there for each other and actively trying to be open, caring and inclusive.” 

Thal aspires to build a community through music and provide a fulfilling and inclusive Jewish experience for people and what they need. Thal is interested in a variety of settings after graduation, but is intentionally leaving options open. 

The first year of the program occurs in Israel, and then the remaining four years occur in the other three campus in the United States. There is a location in New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati. Thal will attend the Los Angeles campus for the next four years. Thal said she aspires to experience other parts of the United States before making her way back to St. Louis. 

“I think I’ll probably end up in St. Louis eventually because that’s where my family is, and it’s good to be around family,” Thal said.

Thal said she enjoys living in Israel, but she feels more connected to American Reform Judaism than Israeli Reform Judaism.

“I definitely would love to come back and visit because you know, the hummus here is amazing,” said Thal.

Share this post

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail