Here at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, we kicked off a four-part Sacred Calling series this past Shabbat. In many ways, our congregation is isolated from “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” The Sacred Calling’s subtitle. B’nai Israel has never been led by a woman rabbi. (To be fair, the congregation has only had three rabbinic searches since 1972, one of them rather early in the era of women rabbis and another for an interim rabbi.) As I read about the programs that colleagues held when The Sacred Calling first came out, with panels including the anthology’s editors and Sally Priesand, I knew that expense and distance would prohibit such an occasion in Little Rock.
We got creative. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Sacred Calling author, is a dear friend of our congregation, and especially of our President and her wife, who generously offered to bring her here to keynote our program. Another Sacred Calling author, Rabbi Jeff Kurtz-Lendner, lives within driving distance, as does Rabbi Katie Bauman, the woman rabbi who grew up in this synagogue and maintains strong ties here. A program was born.
I did not know to anticipate that our Temple archivist, Jim Pfiefer, would deepen the program with an exhibit in our Temple lobby. The display suggests that our congregation may not be as remote from those “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate” as I thought. I did know that my predecessor, Rabbi Gene Levy, was ordained with Rabbi Priesand. I did not know that Rabbi Angela Graboys had served in nearby Hot Springs, Arkansas; or that Rabbi Laura Lieber hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas. And I’m touched by the lovely display case about Rabbi Bauman.
Included in the display are the words of Rabbi Louis Witt, z”l, who served this congregation from 1907 to 1919. Two years after leaving Little Rock, Rabbi Witt pled with the CCAR to support the ordination of women. In 1921, which proved to be more than a half-century before the first woman would be ordained in North America, Rabbi Witt was already exasperated: “Five years ago, I had to argue in favor of women’s rights when that question came up in the Arkansas legislature, but I did not feel that there would be need to argue that way in a liberal body of men like this [i.e., the CCAR].”
On Friday night, prior to Rabbi Elwell’s keynote, I reflected on how Rabbi Witt might react to the present realities for women in the rabbinate. My liturgical prompt was Mi Chamocha. The Children of Israel doubtless celebrated their freedom when they escaped Egyptian bondage after the tenth plague. Scarcely a week later, they found their liberation incomplete: They were trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the foreboding Sea. Then, once secure on the other shore, they sang in celebration. And yet, even then, freedom was not complete. Enemies internal and external would continue to plague them. And us. And still, we sing in gratitude.
We are, and we ought to be, grateful – for the ordination of women over the last 45 years, the realization of the only goal that Rabbi Witt knew to dream. For the successes that many of our female colleagues have achieved since 1972. For award-winning (and deserving) achievements such as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and The Sacred Calling.
Now, though, we also know, as we should’ve known all along, that liberation is not complete:
- Women rabbis, like their peers in other professions, continue to face a wage gap, compared to males of similar seniority, congregation or community organization size, and experience.
- Women rabbis report sexual harassment at the hands of both colleagues and community members.
- Equitable family leave, including but not limited to maternity leave, is not a reality for many.
- The voices of women rabbis aren’t always taken as seriously or heard as loudly as those of male colleagues.
My list is incomplete for a variety of reasons, not least because I’m not a woman.
I am grateful that our Conference, professionally led in this arena by Rabbi Hara Person, has established a Task Force to examine the experience of women in the rabbinate; and that our Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Women of Reform Judaism are diligently exploring the wage gap and family leave issues.
At our upcoming convention in Orange County, I look forward to hearing from Task Force Chairs, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, as well as WRN leaders, about their progress and challenges. Like the colleagues Rabbi Witt addressed, I am among “a liberal body of men” who have much to learn. Unlike Rabbi Witt, I will be learning from and alongside female colleagues.
And that’s a blessing. Like the Children of Israel singing Mi Chamocha before us, we have much to celebrate, even as we acknowledge that liberation is not complete.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.