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.”

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Post-Pesach Blog: Zero-Based Seder Leading with Sharing the Journey Haggadah

Passover might be over, but it’s not too late (or too early…) to look back and start to bank ideas for next year.  Rabbi Eddie Goldberg shares thoughts from his seder experience. 

Recently a stressed-out father asked me what haggadah would be best for a family with youngish children.  I was happy to recommend Sharing the Journey (CCAR Press), by Alan S. Yoffie and illustrated by Mark Podwal. But I reminded the dad that the haggadah does not a good seder make, by itself.  The more important question is not which haggadah but what is one trying to accomplish.  Indeed, a case in Chicago could be made for taking the children to Lake Shore Drive and asking them to imagine reaching a large body of water with a hostile army in pursuit.  What would they do?

Nevertheless, due to Chicago weather (it was snowing during the seder) and inconvenient rules involving religious rituals on state beaches, the seder we conducted last night was a close second to being the most authentic Pesach moment for the eleven of us, mostly cousins, who shared a seder for the first time ever or, if not, then in about thirty-five years.

In preparing for the seder I knew that the new haggadah would serve us well with its respect for tradition, beautiful appearance, transliteration (mostly) and contemporary spin.  I also spend a lot of time on a Power Point (or Keynote) component.  (I even have a version of the new haggadah on my iPad.)  Although I found the Visual Tefilah Haggadah supplement well done, I chose after considerable thought to use instead my own, which does not follow the new haggadah so much as provide a midrashic complement to it.  In general I see electronic tefilah (or seders) as an enrichment and not mirroring of the worship or ritual experience.

I am glad to report that, due in some measure to my efforts and the invaluable help of my 23-year old USC computer science grad, the seder came off without a hitch.  The incredible culinary talents and warmth of my wife did not hurt either.  It was great presenting a seder experience to contemporaries who thought that Maxwell House equaled the tip-top of haggadah offerings.  We also had a nine-year old cousin who had never attended a seder before.  She entered visibly scared and annoyed and left the star of the seder and having asked all the right questions and more!

Tonight the seder will be presented at our congregation with the new haggadot.  I know the food and atmosphere will not be able to  match last night’s efforts but I am delighted that, if we succeed, the haggadah will have proven its worth once again as a sacred component of an evergreen evening.


Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and is one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.

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See You in Chicago!: From the First CCAR Convention Registrant

I must admit it’s more than a little embarrassing to receive an e-mail from a classmate (and Jerusalem roommate!) telling me I was the first colleague to register for our upcoming CCAR Convention in Chicago. It’s one thing to be an enthusiastic member of our Conference (which I am), but it’s another matter entirely to be the loudest guy cheering at the pep rally.

But I’m glad Joui Hessel reached out to let me know I was the very first registrant, because it’s given me a chance to reflect on why I rushed to make sure that I would be a part of yet another meaningful, productive, and refreshing CCAR convention.  And I can boil all that down to two things: learning with colleagues, and doing with colleagues.

The learning at Convention is always top-notch.  Be it the speakers (Michael Chabon last year was a highlight for me) or the smaller sessions, there’s always something new to think about, a new perspective provided, and thoughtful friends (unfortunately scattered across North America) with whom to discuss.  And then there is the incredibly important informal education: catching up with colleagues in the hallways, restaurants and [let’s admit it] bars, to see what’s happening in their lives, and to talk about common challenges we face.  There’s no better course of professional development than conversing with CCAR_LB-0660colleagues of all ages to help orient me before I return back home.

Learning is good, but doing is more important.  (That’s in Pirkei Avot, I’m pretty sure, but this isn’t a scholarly article.) And the “doing” that we rabbis get to work on together changed profoundly for me last year in Long Beach.  There we launched the first campaign of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, which has led to a massive year of continued effort and focus on helping Comprehensive Immigration Reform pass through Congress.  The Convention not only allows our strategy team to meet face-to-face (in place of bi-weekly conference calls), but it more importantly allowed all of us to connect to colleagues who soon became comrades-in-arms in this crusade.  It was incredibly energizing to see a room full of rabbis engaged in an issue; it’s more encouraging, many months later, to see how many of those rabbis have found meaningful ways to remain connected to and involved in the work since Long Beach.

254I find that time away from home and hearth and study allows me time to get better perspective on my life and career.  For thirteen straight years, I find no better partners in finding that perspective than my friends who share CCAR Convention with me.  Because these times are so precious to me, I’m proud I was the first to register.

And I hope you’re the next one to do so!  See you in Chicago!

  Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.