By Ruth Thomas

A rabbinic ordination authorises the recipient, after a long period of study, to act as a rabbi. It is usually performed by a representative of an institute of higher Jewish learning.

The ordination of New Zealand’s newest rabbi, Rabbi JoEllen Duckor, was not the usual ordination. It was a private ordination performed by four visiting rabbis before an overflowing Temple Sinai congregation.

The rabbis present did not usually believe in private ordination and they said so. Nor is it recognised by the Union of Progressive Judaism to which Wellington’s Temple Sinai belongs.

“When people go to see a doctor, they expect the doctor is properly qualified. It’s the same with a rabbi. They expect a level of knowledge and capability acquired from a highly regarded institute of higher learning,” JoEllen Duckor said.

“For me, to achieve this seemed too hard, too long, too expensive and I was too old.”

And so how did this happen for a 62-year-old with three children who was previously married to a non-Jew?

JoEllen grew up in New York in the 1950s surrounded by Jewish life. Her friends and family were Jewish and she went to a public school which was closed on the Jewish holidays because so many of the teachers and children were Jewish.

“But I didn’t know about Judaism, and what it was about,” she said.

She met and married author Lloyd Jones and in 1980 came to New Zealand.

“When I had three children I suddenly realised that the New Zealand culture was different to my New York upbringing. On Friday night you went to the pub and Saturday was a holiday.

“My children growing up in New Zealand weren’t going to know about Judaism – it wasn’t like Brooklyn, New York.”

She became more observant. She observed the Sabbath and baked challah. And she started studying about Judaism. In 1986 she joined Temple Sinai so her children could go to a Jewish Sunday school.

In New Zealand everyone pitches in to make something happen, JoEllen explains.

“So at Temple Sinai, I pitched in and started teaching at the Beit Midrash. But I realised I needed to learn more, to study.”

JoEllen was falling in love with Judaism.

She did a religious study degree and where she had choices increased her Jewish education. She taught at Wellington’s Moriah College and studied even more. When she visited her parents in the States, she went to retreats, studied on-line and through Skype went deeper into Judaism.

In 1990 she applied to a rabbinical school.

“My interview was going well. Half way through it I was asked about my husband, a question not on the application form. I was still married to Lloyd. That was the end of the interview.”

JoEllen came back to New Zealand and did more and more for Temple Sinai.

“Then I put a proposal to the Temple Sinai board. I had done a Christian spiritual directors’ course and thought I could be a mashpiah for the community.”

Mashpiah is translated variously but most often is used to describe a companion, guide or spiritual director and teacher of matters of Jewish faith and practice.

The board agreed. She worked first for ten hours a week, and then 15 hours.

“I was very happy in that position,” she said.

By then she had another partner, professional clown Rick Saharm who was Jewish. Her three children were adults. Sam (35) is a well-established sculptor and author of a soon-to-be published book of poetry.  Avi (33) works as a teacher, and was winner of New Zealand Survivor and Sophia (30) was a radio journalist.

JoEllen felt her life couldn’t be better.

When she was on a retreat, Rabbi Jeff Roth suggested she consider a private rabbinic ordination. She had heard of it but felt it wasn’t for her. Last year he repeated the proposal. She would need to convene a rabbinic court, consisting of three rabbis to examine her and to report on whether she had the attributes required. JoEllen found four rabbis, including a woman, who would support her. .

Despite their personal reservations about private ordination, these rabbis supported her.

At the ceremony in December, Rabbi Jeff Roth, the co-founder of the Jewish Spiritual Retreat Center in Connecticut spoke of JoEllen’s wisdom.

Rabbi Fred Morgan, professorial Fellow at Australian Catholic University, in Jewish-Christian relations described her ability to overcome obstacles and become a leader in Jewish wisdom and a teacher.

Rabbi Brian Besser of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, Indiana said to be a rabbi is a vocation.

Rabbi Johanna Hershenson of Temple Beth Tikvah in Bend, Central Oregon said what God wants, is that we do justly, love mercy and work humbly.

Rabbi Johanna described how JoEllen did all these things, studies and practises, teaches and facilitates and how she possesses true humility.

The four rested their hands on her, passing on the sacred truths received from the Torah and transmitted through Joshua and the prophets to the people.

“I am eternally grateful to the congregation of Temple Sinai,” Rabbi JoEllen told me, recently.

Nor does she mind that she remains officially the mashpiah and is not employed as the rabbi of Temple Sinai.

However, the title of rabbi has also empowered her to go ahead with her own ideas for the synagogue, she says.

An early innovation was her idea to hire a youth worker from within the congregation. This has been very successful and added to Temple Sinai’s strength. She has started a contemplative service, now attended by many who do not come to regular services. Tot Shabbat, for the babies in the congregation is another innovation.

“I trust my own judgement more and allow myself to pay attention to my instincts about what is right for Temple Sinai.

“Temple Sinai has allowed me into their lives. The congregation have been my teachers. I am beholden to Temple Sinai,” she says.

Many would say Temple Sinai is also beholden to JoEllen Duckor.