There’s So Much I Don’t Know about Women (Rabbis)

I get energized when I discover a key to unlocking the meaning of a significant text that previously had eluded me. Having realized how little I knew, I then cannot stop turning the text over and over in my mind to mine it for new insights. Now when the text is as central and poignant as the experience of women in the rabbinate and the key to understanding might be as simple as asking and listening, the insights are simultaneously painful and explosively poignant.

This week, four esteemed rabbinic colleague’s guided us through a program entitled Creating Cultural Change: Engaging with the Work of the Task Force on the  Experience of Women in the Rabbinate. It was the first of many opportunities to engage with this CCAR Task Force, express thoughts and concerns, and help guide the way forward. (Two webinars for non-attending rabbis to participate are scheduled in the coming months.) 

The session was eye-opening, disconcerting, and hopeful. Speaking about hopes for cultural change, one female colleague said she hoped that in five years she could serve as senior rabbi in a large congregation without having to do it like a man. I responded with my first reaction, that  I hoped that within two years I will understand all that you really mean by that statement. 

Sitting that morning around a table, and reflecting throughout the day with colleagues of all genders, ages, and orientations, I discovered the sad but energizing truth: that for all I hold myself in high esteem for my support of female colleagues, there is just so much abouttheir experience that I just do not understand.

So I did what I usually do when I realize I don’t understand. I asked questions. I listened. I learned:

About how often women rabbis are challenged about their competence and professionalism, leaving them to ponder “what really just happened”

About how regularly women rabbis experience denigration by male rabbis (beyond the harassment and abuse).

About the lengths some women must go to receive maternity leave or pay equity (that has been a mainstay of our congregation since we hired our first woman rabbi).

About the apparent blindness of male rabbis who don’t realize that if women receive equity, then the median compensation level rises, and with it, all our compensation levels.

Most poignantly, though, I discovered that there are so many challenges for women as rabbis that I cannot even begin to comprehend. If I really want to help right these wrongs (and I do), then I am going to have to ask a whole bunch of questions and be willing to listen to the answers.

Because beyond the big name Harvey Weinsteins we encounter in our rabbinates (yes, we do have our own), there are so many subtle (and not so subtle) ways that women rabbis face discrimination, delegitimization, harassment, abuse and more. 

So I declare:

I do not understand. 

I am trying to listen and learn. 

I approach this open heartedly and open mindedly. 

I thank my colleagues who share, make me aware, open up to declare, what I wondered and fear: that even those of us who consider ourselves the “good guys” are most probably blind to realities of your lives. 

And I thank the Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate for helping me wake up. So, like with all texts, I keep discovering out that there is so so much I do not understand.  I am energized by the prospect of asking, listening, learning and advocating.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.

10 replies on “There’s So Much I Don’t Know about Women (Rabbis)”

Thoughtful words, Paul. I hope you will consider meeting with a group of colleagues and discuss the (first) Ally Guide that the WRN has put together. This is challenging work for all of us and we are very hopeful that together we can right the wrongs.

i am saddened by your comments, Paul and hope you do understand the rabbinate from a woman’s perspective. As a vatika – someone who was ordained more than 40 years ago, I would have hoped things were better and that male rabbis had stepped up to the plate to “demand” better treatment especially with respect to maternity leave. One congregation fired me for being pregnant because they did not want to see a pregnant body on the bimah as “rabbi”. Our very important Jewish values with respect to home, family and ensuring Jewish continuity rests upon our need to have a family as Breshit requires. The fact that these values were not to be applied to me as rabbi seemed absolutely ridiculous at the time and even more so more than 40 years later. Saying that women rabbis are a blessing or that they should be encouraged means little when congregations have the power to treat women rabbis as 2nd class with no apparent consequences. I was treated far more respectfully working for a fortune 500 company where everyone knew I was a rabbi. We had quite a few orthodox engineers and management used to call me to explain certain holidays and why their employee could not be there.

Thank you for sharing your experience and your call for male colleagues to stand up. I’m so saddened about the harshness that greeted you as a rabbi. Unfair. Unjust. Plain wrong.

For me, and my congregation, pay equity for our female colleague and full maternity leave, was easy. The congregation even got her a new pump for her office so she wouldn’t need to schlep from home. And babysitting is included if she brings the kids to retreat. I realize all this is still not the norm for our female colleagues and I look forward to learning how I can better partner and advocate throughout the movement.

The other aspects of the experience of women rabbis – denigration, silencing, disrespect, harassment and worse – are still new to me. I am horrified each time I learn more about it and I am so grateful to my colleagues for sharing the realities with me. And I am committing to speaking up. To listening. To learning more.

First, as one who studied and was ordained well before the advent of women rabbis, I am not only deeply grateful for the admission and Ordination of female colleagues, I acknowledge that this changed my rabbinical practice – indeed my life. All of my previous models had taught me that I was a rabbi 24/7 and that the longer and harder I labored, the more successful I would be. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I learned that I was entitled to a personal life and that my family was entitled to have me available to meet their needs no less than congregants, sometimes even at the expense of a congregant’s desires. Gradually, I recognized even more that I needed to make the time to care for my body, mind and soul. Indeed, I was liberated from the confinement of the title “Rabbi” to live as a genuine human being.

Through the years of my rabbinate forward, I was further grateful to female colleagues for deepening my Jewish knowledge and raising my self-awareness of what it meant to be a colleague to all rabbinical genders. I agree with Paul Kipnes: there was so much I did not know about women rabbis. More, there are many things I did not know about women in general. I did not even know much about being a male rabbi. I have been very blessed to share my life with strong and independent women: my wife, our daughter, our daughter-in-law and our two strong young adult granddaughters who have never hesitated to set me straight when it was needed. They have been amazingly sensitive and loving guides and teachers and I am eternally grateful to them for instructing me to become a full human being first. And yes, I am still trying to learn even in my dotage and long retirement.

Thank you, women colleagues! History will record that you moved mountains of male hypocrisy and raised us from our rehearsed stupidity and littleness as “Rabbis” thus strengthening the Jewish People in ways we could never have imagined. Still, I regret what you had to endure even as I am heartened by what I pray I perceive possible on the horizon.

Spot on, Paul! I have always considered myself to be a feminist. My wife and I like to think that we have raised three strong, independent and resilient daughters (and one granddaughter!) Even still, I was stunned (and embarrassed) that my eyes were opened to something I never realized when #metoo began. I knew misogyny and harrassment were all around us. I did not realize that it happens EVERY DAY. I am embarrassed I was blind to that. Listening to the stories of our colleagues around those tables that they, too, report it happens everyday in our synagogues is not acceptable. #imwithher #imwiththetaskforce #countmein

Thank you for being there. To all the male colleagues who showed up, including you: thank you for your willingness to be in the room. That’s the first step.

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