Funny, You Don’t Look Like A Rabbi

How many times have I been told, “Funny, you don’t look like a rabbi!” Thirty-six years ago, when I was working as a hospital chaplain, that comment was often followed by, “You don’t even have a beard.” I would reply, “No, and I’m not circumcised, either.”

“Funny, You Don’t Look Like A Rabbi”, was the title of the program for the Annual Luncheon of the Jewish Women’s Foundation of Chicago on January 18, 2017. Actually, the full title was “Funny, You Don’t Look Like A Rabbi: Tales from The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.” The special guest speakers were the book’s editors, Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf and Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, who carried on a conversation, talk-show style, sharing their personal stories and some of the stories from The Sacred Calling. I was invited to offer HaMotzi at the luncheon, as one of the contributors to the book, as the first female rabbi in Chicago, and as one of the small group who, twenty years ago, brain-stormed about the creation of the Jewish Women’s Foundation. As I listened to my brilliant and funny colleagues entertain and inform this group of well-heeled and well-dressed women at the Jewish Federation building downtown, I was so engaged in their stories that I forgot to take notes for this blog post. Their stories carried me back into some of my own.

Rabbi Ellen Dreyfus Shares Her Sacred Calling from CCAR on Vimeo.

Every woman in the rabbinate has her own stories – of stupid comments, of inappropriate questions, of being ridiculed, and of being ignored. We have all been at that meeting where we made a point or suggested an idea, and several minutes later a man said the same thing and was praised for his brilliance. We have all been in the receiving line where some jerk we don’t know thinks it’s okay to kiss us and say, “Gee, I’ve never kissed a rabbi before!” We have all been publicly addressed by only our first names while the male rabbis in the room have been called Rabbi LastName. Most of us have been underpaid and untrained in asking for the compensation we deserved. Those of us with children have gone through agonizing decisions of how to juggle motherhood and our careers, and no matter what the decision, we have been subjected to the criticism of those who think we could have/should have handled it better.

We also have our success stories and our moments of triumph. Those are usually not unique to us as women, but I don’t want to make it sound like our rabbinates are all war stories or tales of conflict and disappointment. There have been people who came to us for counseling because they felt more comfortable talking to a woman. There are those who thrived with a more collaborative style of leadership introduced by their female rabbi. We have had experiences in inter- and intra-faith dialogues with other women that were so much closer and easier than our male counterparts seemed to have.

As Rebecca and Alysa shared their narratives, answered questions, laughed together and delighted their audience, I looked around the room and realized that much of this was new to the women in attendance. Even though there have been women rabbis in Chicago for decades (I moved back here in 1983), and even though some of these women must belong to synagogues where women have served on the rabbinic staff, they were mostly ignorant of the obstacles we have faced and the attitudes that still plague our female colleagues. They had worked with Federation on paid family leave issues, so they resonated to Alysa’s reference to the challenge rabbis face when they give birth or adopt. It was encouraging to them and all of us to hear her frame it as a Jewish issue of supporting families and the Jewish future.

For me, personally, the event was very affirming. I was introduced with several of my “firsts” and was clearly the senior colleague of the many female rabbis present. The speakers kindly referred to me as one of the vatikot (veterans) of the first decade, and I looked upon them almost like a proud parent kvelling while her children succeed. A few days later, at the outdoor Shabbat service prior to the Women’s March on Chicago, one of the rabbis who organized the gathering asked me how it felt to see the next generation of women taking over. I told her how happy it made me to see that there are so many to continue the work I have been doing. It was one of those moments when I could actually see some of the fruits of my labors, and know that the Jewish future in Chicago is in good hands. And yes, she did look like a rabbi.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is Rabbi Emerita of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, Illinois. She is a past-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and was the first woman to be president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis. She and her husband Jim have three grown children and four grandchildren. Her motto for the past several years is: “Grow where you’re planted.”

CCAR on the Road General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Remarks from the CCAR Rabbinic Mission to Berlin

Rabbis and spouses on the CCAR Rabbinic Mission to Berlin
Rabbis and spouses on the CCAR Rabbinic Mission to Berlin

Remarks from Dedication at Memorial to German Resistance with Christian Schmidt, member of the Bundestag and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Defense

Secretary Schmidt, Prof. Tuchel, revered rabbinic colleagues and friends, it is an honor to represent the Central Conference of American Rabbis at this ceremony of commemoration today.  We are a group of rabbis and spouses from across North America, here to explore this wonderful city and to learn about Jewish renewal in Berlin. In our few days here, we have visited cemeteries and museums, memorials and monuments. We have stumbled over Stolpersteine, read and heard the stories, and seen the signs and landmarks that record the dark history of the destruction of European Jewry at the hands of those who ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. Some of us are descendants of Jewish refugees from Germany and other parts of Europe, and all of us have known survivors of the death camps and the Nazi terror.  For some, this is their first trip to Germany, which they anticipated with trepidation and at best mixed feelings.

We have also visited Jewish schools and synagogues, seen children at play and students engrossed in learning. We have witnessed a rebirth of creativity by rabbis and lay leaders and volunteers who, despite tremendous obstacles, are rebuilding Jewish life in this scarred and wounded land and society. They have taken up the challenge of the phoenix rising from the ashes of a destroyed community, and what they create will be something new and different, but we hope and pray, something worthwhile and a solid successor of the glorious history of German Jewish life.

Now, in this difficult week, we remember with our sisters and brothers around the world, the 75th anniversary of the November pogroms of 1938, which marked the beginning of the end for German Jewry.  From the 9th of November and on, Jews knew in a way they may not have acknowledged before, that the government that they had defended, paid taxes to, and served as proud citizens; that government would no longer defend them, their persons or their property. Whatever illusions Jews might have held, that this was just another wave of anti-Semitism to be endured like those of the past; that this civilized country could not possibly follow the ravings of a maniac; that this, too, would pass and quiet would return – those illusions were shattered like breaking glass, as government and its forces became the enemy of Jewish people.

There were as well those few who spoke out, who resisted, who attempted to stop the bulldozers that crushed human rights and human decency and civilized behavior.  There were those Christians and other people of faith, who at great risk to themselves, defied the inhumane rules, saved Jews, and tried to stop the madness.  Today we commemorate that courageous resistance.  They were too few and too late; their voices and their actions drowned out by the thunder of absolute power. Had they spoken up in 1933 or 1938 instead of 1944, we might have seen a different course of history. Hindsight is 20/20, and we regret what might have been.  But still, we honor those who tried, who resisted, and who paid for it with their lives.  They, among the righteous of all nations, are the sparks of light amid the darkness.

It is tremendously moving for us, American rabbis, to see the extent to which Germans have taken responsibility for their past, and devoted themselves to educating the populace of the dangers of repeating history. May these memorials serve as witness to future generations, of the human potential for evil, and the human potential for goodness.  We pray that goodness will prevail.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus is a Past President of the CCAR, and is the Rabbi Emerita of B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom in Homewood, IL