The term "Hebrew priestess" might sound like something out of ancient history, but it's how Sydney woman Keshira haLev Fife describes herself.
"Kohenet is a Hebrew word: [it's] the feminine word of kohen, which translates to priest," Ms Fife explains.
"Kohens are written about extensively in our sacred texts, and there's no reason to believe women did not hold sacred tasks.
"We have been nurturers, healers, prophetesses, midwives and on and on, forever."
It is widely acknowledged that priests were central to the practice of Judaism in ancient times, but against scholarly consensus, Ms Fife firmly believes there were also female priestesses.
The role of priests declined after the destruction of the second temple in 70CE, which meant they could no longer conduct services and sacrifices.
Around this period, rabbis — teachers of the Torah — assumed greater authority in Judaism. Jewish priests still exist, but they have reduced responsibilities and can only assume the role through their paternal bloodline and the surname Kohen.
The Jewish gender debate
While women can become rabbis in progressive Jewish traditions, Orthodox communities maintain that ritual leadership roles have always been restricted to men.
But according to Ms Fife, kohenot (priestesses) are alluded to — if not directly referenced — in Jewish sacred texts.
"One really needs to read in between what we called the 'white fire' — in between the black lettering — to understand what might have been going on at that time," she says.
Rabbi Benjamin Elton of Sydney's Great Synagogue, disagrees. He says there is no evidence in the bible of priestesses during the first temple period, only mention of priests.
Despite the scriptural disagreement, he takes a neutral position on the practice of modern priestesses.
"I couldn't agree with it theologically, but I take a live-and-let-live approach in practice," he says.
"Just as I've got friends who are reformed rabbis or members of reformed congregations, there's a difference between theological disagreements and personal relationships."
Keeping the faith alive
Ms Fife has dreamt about a spiritual role since childhood.
"In kindergarten when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said that I wanted to be a rabbi and drive a white Cadillac," she says.
"I've since given up the aspiration to drive a white Cadillac but [the role of] rabbi has remained in the back of my mind, and in the core of my heart for a long time."
For various reasons — travel, love and work among them — Ms Fife's interest in rabbinic education took a back seat until 2011, when a devastating experience caused her to reassess her life.
"I had the blessing of a molar pregnancy, which is a condition whereby instead of a proper conception a uterine cyst is formed and it simulates cancer," Ms Fife explains.
"I spent a year in chemotherapy and in psychological and emotional therapy — ultimately I ended up having a nervous system breakdown and an existential crisis all at the same time.
"It was an invitation to review how I was living, and what I came upon is that I felt called to be of service in some way."
But rabbinical training would have meant moving overseas, so she sought an alternative, and came across the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute.
Co-founded by Rabbi Jill Hammer, a social psychologist and scholar in Jewish women's leadership, with musician Taya Shere, the institute has been ordaining kohonot for the past decade.
After spending the past three-and-a-half years travelling between Sydney and the United States to study, Ms Fife received her smicha, or ordination, in July.
Taking a 'Jew-niversal' approach
In Sydney, Ms Fife leads a group called Kesher (Hebrew for connection), where she observes Kabbalat Shabbat services, which mark the Jewish day of rest.
While shabbat is a ritual rooted in Judaism, Ms Fife says her Kesher, which involves music, spoken word, meditation and food, is open to all faiths.
"It's something I call Jew-niversalism," she says.
"I consider Kesher to be post-denominational, so it means we've moved beyond the need to identify Jewishly how people practice or what their origin is.
"And we're non-institutional, which means there is no expectation about how one might be dressed, how one might sit, stand, move or otherwise."
The presence of females in religious rituals and leadership roles is also central to Ms Fife's belief system.
But she's quick to clarify she sees male and female influences as complementary, not in competition.
"Most people would say [Kohenet training] is either feminist or in service of the divine feminine," she notes.
"My own framing is that it's in service of the reunification of the divine masculine with the divine feminine.
"It is a remembrance of women's history in ritual and spiritual leadership which has at best been forgotten and has at worst been erased from history."