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.”

gender equality

Definitions of Feminism

By all accounts, I was the least likely person to edit a book about women rabbis. Until recently, I recoiled at the very thought of being considered a feminist. “I am an equalist,” I would argue whenever anyone suggested otherwise. To me, being a feminist required an automatically-renewing subscription to Ms. Magazine (and/or Lilith for those of the Mosaic persuasion), a library filled with Erica Jong, Betty Friedan, Simone De Beauvior, and Naomi Wolf, and a predisposition to sense misogyny lurking beneath every statement uttered by a man. When I was invited to join the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN), I declined. I had found the gatherings too strident for my taste. (Plus I was certain they would kick me out for my non-feminist sensibilities.)

I grew up in a shul that embraced egalitarianism even before that became a watchword of the Reform movement. In 1983, just ahead of being called to Torah as a bat mitzvah, I asked my parents about wearing a tallit, which was not the custom at the time. Not because it wasn’t permitted – but because no one had ever given it much thought. Once the issue was raised, it became minhag. Our shul’s liturgy included the matriarchs, and women were granted the same access to Torah, learning, and every other aspect of communal Jewish life as the men. Our rabbi happened to be male and our cantor happened to be female and at no time did it occur to me or my classmates that gender had anything to do with their positions. To say the gender issues was not on my radar would be an accurate assessment.Sacred Calling cover

During my second year at HUC, a prominent woman rabbi came to speak to our Practical Rabbinic class. She was among the first generation of women rabbis and, having grown up in the Conservative Movement, had experienced a great deal of gender bias both personally and professionally. She talked about the institutional misogyny that existed in Judaism and how women were kept out of the story by patriarchal leadership dating back to Talmudic times. When I explained that my experience had been very different, she told me that I was suffering from so much trauma that I had clearly blocked out my own pain and sense of disenfranchisement. I wondered if forgotten marginalization still counted and the answer, from the aforementioned rabbi, was a resounding yes.

As many women rabbinical students before and after me, I was routinely asked to speak to synagogues and at other venues about what it was like to be a female rabbinic student. Each invitation rankled. I did not want to qualify my experience based solely on my gender; I wanted to talk about being a rabbinical student. Stam. And so I would begin each talk with “Since I’ve only ever been a woman, my rabbinical school experience is both all about being a women and nothing about being a women. And I can only pray that the day may come when we no longer need to have this conversation.”

More than twenty years have passed since I began rabbinical school. Sadly, that day has still not come. Over the years, people have said things to me that they would NEVER say to one of my male colleagues. Women rabbis make less than our male counterparts. And other types of institutional gender bias does still exist.

In immersing myself in The Sacred Calling over these past few years prior to publication, my own definition of feminism has been radically altered. I carry with me the myriad stories about the women who struggled to find their place in the chain of our Rabbinic tradition, the many positive changes that have occurred in contemporary liberal Judaism as a result, and the necessary work required to bring about full equality for all those who have a place within our sacred community. While my childhood did not, as it turns out, cause any trauma, I can no longer reject the Truth of other people’s experiences. We are, and have always been, a part of the narrative. The Sacred Calling is one way to ensure that our stories are heard; I invite you to read it and share it with your community.

By the way, I am now a card-carrying member of the WRN, and eagerly anticipate each new issue of Lilith.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is the editor of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.

Reform Judaism Social Justice

Beyond Colorful Socks and a New Outfit

“I like Rabbi Prosnit’s colorful socks,” said a congregant during last week’s synagogue program. This comment was a response to one of our panelist’s statements that whenever she wears the color pink or has a new outfit, a congregant usually remarks on her clothing, yet rarely do her male colleagues receive comments about their attire. She is absolutely right. Rarely does anyone say anything about my ties, shoes, or sweaters, though occasionally, I do get comments about my colorful socks.

Last week, our congregation organized a program titled The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate in anticipation of the release of the new book with the same title from the CCAR Press. We were privileged to welcome co-editor of the book, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein-Schorr, who facilitated a dialogue with three rabbis from our Temple community, Rabbis Ellen Lewis, Mary Zamore, and Sarah Smiley. The four rabbis took part in a candid conversation, sharing reflections about their education at HUC-JIR, the challenges they have faced as leaders of congregations, and the continued work that synagogues and our Movement need to undertake for women rabbis.

During the conversation, I discovered that the language on my smicha is different than my female colleagues. (Rabbi Mary Zamore has written an article about this in the forthcoming book.) My appreciation deepened for my Temple Emanu-El predecessors’ hard work to create a strong family leave policy at our congregation. I became more aware of the uncomfortable, funny, and challenging conversations that my colleagues have, and continue to have, because of their gender.

Yet, the biggest takeaway for me was the importance of this conversation for our congregants. For many in attendance, particularly our younger Temple members, they never knew the struggle that women rabbis had to go through to establish themselves in their careers. It was an eye-opening conversation as well as an opportunity for self-reflection for our congregants on how they may treat their rabbis differently depending on their gender. People were so drawn in by the stories from our rabbis that they did not want to leave.

I am extremely excited for the release of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate and look forward to using the book in our adult education, confirmation, and b’nai mitzvah programs. This book will be a great tool to share the legacy and history of our first women rabbis and also a way to spark conversations with our congregants. I hope that our discussions will transcend colorful socks and a new outfit and will help to create a rabbinate that is fair and equitable for all.

Rabbi Ethan Prosnit serves Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ.

To pre-order your copy of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate visit our website.