In 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. The resolution stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This was a groundbreaking moment in contemporary Jewish history, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah and leading the Jewish community. In 1972, Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who have followed her. Still, even today, the concept of women rabbis can be novel enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, in their geographical location, to serve on boards, and the list goes on. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. Here, we share the “firsts” of Rabbi Karen L. Fox, LMFT, ordained in 1978. The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
It’s quite amazing that 100 years ago the CCAR asserted the possibility of women’s inclusion as rabbis within the Reform community. Although at that time, most women had not come out from behind a mechitza in synagogue settings, and if they did it was to allow family seating in services. Stepping into Jewish leadership would break the halachic/Jewish legal boundaries, the social expectations of women, and the psychosocial transference that congregants project to their rabbis. And yes, change takes time…perhaps 100 years or more.
In the 1920s, my great aunt Dr. Charlotte Schwarzenberger (Lotte) studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and became a PhD in Psychology. Her sisters also pushed the envelope for that time— Frida became a LCSW, and Trude, a partner in a citrus import-export business with her husband. My grandmother Berta wanted to go to medical school, but she married early and had two children; she certainly would have loved the medical profession and had the intellect to pursue it. The influence of these great aunts, the Tantes, and my grandmother gave me courage to enter the rabbinate when there was only one woman rabbi yet ordained.
Two male rabbis influenced me as well. Rabbi Haim Asa, a Bulgarian-born refugee became our family rabbi in Fullerton, California. He encouraged me to attend UAHC Camp Swig, and later to enter the rabbinate. His joy of Jewish people and community was contagious. Rabbi Richard Levy, the UCLA Hillel director while I was an undergraduate, also reflected joy and purpose in his love of the rabbinate, encouraging me, saying “It was fun!”
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, ‘None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.’ My response, ‘None of the other rabbis have been women before.’Rabbi Karen Fox
When I was ordained from HUC-JIR in 1978, I was approached by the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) to become an assistant regional director. That was clearly flattering—I only knew Reform Jewish life from my HUC-JIR studies, UAHC camps, and my home congregation. It was my opportunity to learn the administrative, social, and political agenda of Reform Judaism. And I grabbed it, also because I could stay in New York as a single woman.
What I now know is that most regional directors were experienced rabbis with pragmatic congregational, administrative, and financial experience they could share with congregations in their areas. Looking back, I believe my unspoken function, was to serve as an informal orientation to Reform congregations regarding women rabbis.
In the hundreds of congregations in the New York and later the New Jersey region, I was often the first women rabbi people would meet, asking me all the awkward woman rabbi questions. I was not offended by their naive or intrusive questions as I understood I was among the first to shift this rabbinic leadership culture. Often I was the only woman professional who was not a secretary or assistant in meetings, board rooms, or conferences.
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, “None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.” My response, “None of the other rabbis have been women before.”
I received three months and promptly shared this news with my women colleagues.
I felt passion to be the best rabbi I could be representing Reform Judaism at that time and promoting women in the rabbinate as part of my purpose of reseeding Jewish life in America.
I was supported by two outstanding colleagues at the UAHC—Rabbi Alan Bergman and Rabbi Sandy Selzer. Each suggested ways to handle the “old boys” network of the Union and the landmines of their agenda. My women colleagues were the angels to my right and left—especially Rabbi Rosalind Gold and Rabbi Deborah Prinz.
A first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple
I was a first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and I’m grateful to two men for guiding my path. I came to the position as rabbi and camp director because of previous relationships. I knew Rabbi Harvey J. Fields from my New Jersey days, and he had recently become the senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Steve Breuer, the executive director, had hired me as a teen to work at Camp Hess Kramer. They both came to bat for me before it was common for women to be on the pulpit and worked with the lay leadership to welcome me as a rabbi there. At Wilshire, there were many firsts: funerals, when folks didn’t really want a woman; weddings for those who had been longtime congregants. Some began with resistance and ended in lifelong respectful and significant relationships. Developing programming for women business professionals, offering support for families experiencing infertility, guiding women to leadership in prayer practice through adult b’nei mitzvah and minyan leadership, celebrating women’s seders in the 1980s; all of these acts were new at the time, as was bringing additional women rabbis to Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
My brother Steven A. Fox is also rabbi and was ordained two years after me, in 1980. He shared his 1980 ordination day with classmate Rabbi Michael Weinberg whose sister is Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (ordained HUC-JIR, 1979). I gave the invocation and she the benediction. Sharing the rabbinate has allowed us a shared language as siblings, a closeness within a circle of friends and family, and a commitment to common values.
I kvelled at his Installation to the CCAR as Chief Executive and cried at his retirement, knowing how proud our parents would have felt: Dave and Senta Salomons Fox came to American as European refugee survivors, as Dad said “with nothing,” and never imagined that their children would become significant Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Karen Fox counsels, consults, teaches, and resides in California.