“This book is a sacred calling to be committed to the survival and resilience and creativity of the Jewish people. That women are acknowledged as a part of this mainstream commitment is huge.”
The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Rabbi Karen Fox, Rabbi Emerita of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and first woman rabbi to serve the national Reform Jewish Movement as a Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union of Reform Judaism), tells us about her own rabbinical career and why The Sacred Calling is important to her.
Q: Growing up, you likely had a vision in your head of what it would be like to be a rabbi. Was it based on what you saw in rabbis growing up? What part of the rabbi’s role made you want to fulfill this position?
A: The biggest part of the rabbi’s role that made me want to fulfill this position was being involved in Jewish continuity. My parents were immigrants and they were survivors. I wanted to be involved in the continuity of Jewish life. And the things that I imagined myself doing were teaching and guiding. If I reflect back on my career, I’ve been involved in advocacy, teaching, guiding, and mentoring. I had a hunch, early on, that these things would be my areas.
Q: As one of the first female rabbis, what obstacles have you faced in the rabbinate?
A: Learning how to look like a woman, and a rabbi, and simultaneously trying to convey a sense of honor and modesty and power can be difficult. If people are distracted by a girly dress or an unprofessional look, that gets in the way of addressing people. In one instance, I realized that the only feminine thing that shows from under my robe is my curly hair and my shoes. These two points seem to be a beeline for some people eyes; people trying to look for the woman under the mushroom-like robe. And I realized that if you don’t like look like the mother figure, or the father figure, or the non-anxious presence that people imagine, then they’re not always satisfied. And whether it’s in clothes, or in word, or in ritual garb, people might be disappointed that we’re not who they imagined we were. But we have to know this, and be comfortable with who we are.
Q: Have you seen a change in the attitudes of people towards women rabbis during your years in the rabbinate?
A: I’m teaching rabbinic students now. There is a general acceptance that women are and can be rabbis, and the students accept and believe that everything will be open to them. And I’m not so sure, because I think if women don’t learn to advocate for themselves, they won’t receive the same money or the same benefits. The less women see themselves as of value – and worthy of demanding value – the fewer benefits we will bring to the field. That concerns me.
Q: What do you see as the next challenges to be met in the struggle towards equal rights in Reform Judaism? What are the next barriers?
A: I think one barrier, on the part of women, is a lackadaisical attitude towards feminists/feminism. Some people think that all doors have been opened. I do not know that all doors have been opened. For example, there was a period of time when people chose to keep their own names, and I see many women at the college who are taking their husband’s names. Does that reflect a lesser assertiveness as a feminist and a religious leader? I’m concerned about that. I am also concerned about Jewishness. I think that sometimes we can be so caught up as social justice advocates that we often forget our Jewish mission for the Jewish people.
Q: What purpose do you think The Sacred Calling will serve?
A: I believe that The Sacred Calling is very important. Historically, women were not part of the leadership in Jewish life; today we are. The book is a sacred calling to be committed to the survival and resilience and creativity of the Jewish people. That women are acknowledged as a part of this mainstream commitment is huge. I want my rabbinic students to have this book as required reading, the men and the women, because they’re often surprised at my story.
Rabbi Karen Fox is Rabbi Emerita of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She was the first woman rabbi to serve at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and, from 1978-1982, was the first woman rabbi to serve the national Reform Jewish Movement as a Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union of Reform Judaism).