Rabbi Sally Priesand once said that, “The Central Conference of American Rabbis has been on record since 1922 as being in favor of the ordination of women, but it took fifty years to change the attitudes of people.” Reform Judaism, a denomination that now accepts female rabbis, did not always hold this perspective. Many fears surrounded the concept of female rabbis—a concept that not only challenged a patriarchal, Jewish tradition but also gender-role stereotypes. As a result of these fears, female rabbis had difficulty obtaining pulpit placements. Therefore, in 1976 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) organized the Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate, which strived to promote the full acceptance of female rabbis.
Similarly, in December of 2017, in order to respond to the challenges faced by this century’s female rabbis, the CCAR organized the Task Force on Women’s Experiences in the Rabbinate. While much progress has been made since the last task force, there are still many obstacles to overcome in order to achieve gender equality in the rabbinate. Led by Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Vice-Chair Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, the task force has implemented a three-year plan, with this first year dedicated towards inquiry.
On Monday, March 19th at the 2018 CCAR Convention, a special listening session was held to begin the anonymous information gathering and to learn what areas must be addressed. Through the use of virtual, rapid polling, attendees were asked to respond to questions by typing them into a survey site. The questions revolved around female rabbinic experiences with gender bias in the hiring and advancement process, sexual harassment and assault, statements on appearance made by laypeople, speech by male colleagues and gender dynamics in Jewish institutions. A main ballroom was filled by female and male colleagues of all ages for this interactive session that also allowed time for table discussions. Participants shared about their interactions and experiences, which were transcribed by table leaders. Taking part in this process was a unique opportunity and was surely history in the making!
Although I am newly ordained, I too, directly and indirectly, already know of the challenges female rabbis face. The experience of gender-based comments and undermining behavior, as well as the struggle to negotiate a respectable amount of paid maternity leave all form an insensitive reality that can and should be changed. Although this reality is shaped by a combination of a patriarchal, Jewish tradition and secular, societal trends, if anyone can be the trailblazer of institutional gender equality, it is the CCAR—it is the same organization that was the first to ordain women, and it is the same denomination that was the first to promise religious equality for women in synagogue life.
I am proud of the CCAR for starting this difficult but imperative endeavor that will challenge and be challenged by society’s gender norms. I am proud of HUC-JIR for beginning the conversation on gender inequality these past two years by leading workshops on micro-aggressions, power dynamics and sexual harassment. It is vital for students, staff and professors to be aware of these gendered experiences and to understand how they can play a role in changing the culture of our institutions. Last but not least, I am proud of our male colleagues who are not afraid to be allies and advocates in cultivating and upholding gender equality. As Rabbi Weinberg Dreyfus stated, “The outcome we seek is not just a program or a policy but cultural change within the rabbinate and the movement at large.” Through consciousness-raising, policy-making and accountability, we can achieve this cultural change.
Rabbi Sally Priesand, who was in attendance at this session and who received an applause of appreciation, once wrote that the “the best way to assure that our Movement’s recognition of women is more than symbolic is to bring women into leadership roles on the national as well as the congregational level, to turn our resolutions of the past decade into reality, to translate our words into deeds.” She knew that real change did not come by just identifying concerns and setting goals but by implementing a plan and following through with it. May we once again hold our words and intentions accountable so that they are transformed into deeds.
Rabbi Allison B. Cohen serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, FL.
 Interview. Interview With First Female Rabbi. ABC News. 25 Nov. 1973. Television.
 Priesand, Rabbi Sally. Letter to Rabbi Alexander Schindler. 1979. Print.