Categories
gender equality

See Something, Say Something: Having the Courage to Name It

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.  

Categories
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.

Categories
Books Social Justice

The Message of the Sacred Calling: Our Journey to True Equality

I grew up in a time and place where it was made perfectly clear that boys and girls were equal; that anything a boy could do, a girl could do, and vice versa. To exclude someone based on gender was wrong, and to make pre-judgments about someone’s capacities based on gender was similarly wrong. I played with and learned with girls on equal footing. My doctors have, for whatever reason, primarily been women. My academic advisor in college was a woman. I thought that feminism had won. I thought that gender inequality was an issue only within the most backwards areas of society. Then I married a woman. Only in the sharing of all parts of our lives was I made aware of how unequal the world continues to be. By having the kind of relationship where we freely share our experiences and feelings, I was made privy to the aspects of women’s lives that most men only come in contact with by being perpetrators of misogyny. I realized that I had been blind to the constant of catcalling and unwanted advances women experience daily. Even the issues of women receiving less pay or fewer chances for advancement simply because they are women had not been clear to me. By having it relayed to me first hand, I was able to finally see the deep inequality that continues to this day.

We recently celebrated the redemption of the children of Israel from Egypt during Passover. That moment of the parting of the sea and the escape from slavery was only the beginning, though. Not only did the Israelites have a forty year trek through the wilderness once they were first liberated, they then had to establish their true sovereignty in the land of Canaan, which took many more generations. The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate mirrors this trek. Our trek through the wilderness has ended, and women are now seen as normal in the Reform rabbinate. In some recent years, there have been more women ordained than men. But we are only now beginning to enter into the tachlis of establishing truly equal representation and treatment. Pay inequality, arguments around family leave, and the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, messages women receive about their clothing, appearance, reproductive choices, or public female persona all persist in the lives of many female rabbis. Sacred Calling cover

We face two great dangers today in the fight for gender equality: taking for granted the progress that has been accomplished, and willfully ignoring the advances made by women. Brave women like Rabbi Sally Preisand, the first woman ordained rabbi in the United States, being willing to take those first steps and push against the stained-glass ceiling so long ago began a charge towards equality. Today, we often hear people claiming that this equality has been accomplished – that the battle is over. Some even claim that the push for gender equality has gone too far, and wish to repeal some of the strides made towards women having full equality.

It is sometimes difficult for me to know, as a man, how best to be an ally. It is both my battle, and not mine at all. It is not mine, in that I can not ever truly know the struggles women face in our society – I can only listen, believe, and try to understand. It is not mine to tell women what they ought to do in order to continue this struggle. It is mine where I am invited to take part as an ally. It is mine to do whatever I can to remember and remind others that gender equality has yet to be accomplished, even though I, as a man, may not experience the inequality first hand. It is mine to make it clear that I am open and ready to learn, listen and believe what I am told. It is mine to call out and quash those perpetrating acts of gender inequality.

The Sacred Calling celebrates the many accomplishments of women in the rabbinate over the past four decades, but also sounds a clarion call to our community that the work is not done. As a man who spent many decades unaware of the continued struggle women feel every day, The Sacred Calling helped to reveal to me the work that is still yet to be accomplished, specifically in the Jewish world. Through giving authoritative voice to the women of the Jewish world, The Sacred Calling represents one more step in the direction of equality. The greatest message tying together the many beautiful essays of the book is that in order to continue to persevere, we must listen to, and believe, the calls of our colleagues, leaders, and friends.

Andy Kahn is a rising fourth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR. He also served the CCAR as an intern during the last two academic years.

Andy’s photo credit: Rick Karp