As a rabbi, who also happens to be a woman, I am living through an unprecedented time, recognizing that I have the honor of standing on the shoulders of giants, those clergy who have paved the way for me to gain access to the rabbinate relatively easily. They fought some of the hardest won battles, proving that women are equally as capable of being great rabbis. There was never any question that I would have the opportunity to serve as a rabbi to a community, and instead, I have the privilege of worrying about the variety of struggles that we, as women rabbis face, particularly when it comes to the implicit biases surrounding gender.
I was particularly reminded of this recently, when I sat with some of our lay leaders discussing a potential business opportunity – a relatively new preschool had approached us about renting some of our classroom space. As we entered into the conversation, the topic of the school’s viability arose and almost immediately began to focus on the gender of the two founders, both of whom happen to be young moms. I sat there watching the conversation volley back and forth, noticing a common repetitive trope, “Are these young moms really capable of creating a successful school?” It became clear, as the conversation continued, that this was not so much of a question as it was a negative mark against the founders of this business endeavor, as if to say that young women were not capable of running a business, but others may be.
As a woman, I often find myself questioning whether it is the right moment to speak up, carrying around with me centuries-old baggage of both explicit and implicit biases. I wonder if others might think that I am upset because I am a woman, or because I am young, or perhaps because I am a younger woman rabbi. In the middle of our conversation, I finally burst out, “Can we please stop referring to these two individuals as young women?!” After a moment of stunned silence, the people around our table resumed the conversation, now referring to these two individuals as the entrepreneurs or school founders. Underneath my exasperation was the understanding that the conversation had, unintentionally, turned to capability based on gender, rather than any measurable data. They saw the implicit bias that had crept up in the heat of the moment, immediately altering the way in which they referred to the school’s founders.
During my time in rabbinical school and in the rabbinate, I have had countless encounters in which a gender bias is clearly present – comments on looking younger than my age, being called a “chick” while leading text study, or remarks about the way in which I style my hair; each time I have to weigh whether it is worth it to call out the bias or let it pass. With each comment, I ask myself whether my calling out the bias will result in a change of opinion or behavior. If I believe that my calling out the bias will result in a change, then I point it out, as I did with our lay leaders.
I know that it is not always easy, nor effortless, to figure out the best way to highlight the implicit biases that still exist within our communities. But it is only with our constant conversation and the courage to point out the implicit bias that we will pave the way for the next generation of rabbis and leaders.
Rabbi Jessica Wainer serves Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation in Reston, VA.