In honor of Labor Day, Rabbi Mary L. Zamore, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, reflects on ethical employment practices and offers a variety of resources to help Jewish workplaces achieve these standards.
Labor Day, the first Monday of September, is the US federal holiday to honor and recognize our workers. In the Jewish community, many frequently describe our places of employment as having cultures like family. However, if we really want to honor the dedicated people who serve as the backbones of our institutions, we must develop the most professional and equitable employment policies and procedures possible. We must ensure equitable hiring, supervision, and promotion; we must create safe, respectful communities. This will honor not only our employees, but also our volunteers, members, and participants. In this manner, we will create cultures in which all can flourish.
For secular employees in the United States, the gender-based wage gap persists. According to a Pew Research Center report, it has barely narrowed in the past two decades. In 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men; this ratio has remained almost the same since 2002, when women earned 80 cents to the dollar. The gap is much wider for women of color. For example, in 2022, Black women earned 70 percent as much as White men, and Hispanic women earned only 65 percent.
Unfortunately, the wage gap also persists in Reform Jewish congregations. The Reform Pay Equity Initiative (RPEI), a project of the seventeen organizations of the Reform Movement and led by Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) and Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN), gathers data from the five professional organizations of the Reform Movement. This aggregation reveals a gender-based wage gap consistent with secular data.
Professional and lay leaders in each Jewish workplace should examine the RPEI data in order to ascertain if their female-identified employees, as well as those of other protected identity groups, are treated fairly and equitably. The question is not just “do we pay our employees fairly?” but “how do we know for sure that we are creating equity in our workplaces and thus living up to our Jewish values?” This drive for equity also requires that hiring, supervision, and promotion are conducted in the most professional manner and result in unbiased employment practices.
To ensure equity in our Jewish workplaces, we must guarantee that all employees have access to paid family and medical leave. With federal laws failing to provide paid leave, the secular American workplace is an outlier among developing and developed countries. Although the situation is improving at the state level, religious institutions are exempt from these laws. Therefore, the moral imperative is on Jewish leaders to provide clearly communicated, robust paid leave for people of all genders who are growing their families or whose loved ones are experiencing medical challenges. WRN’s paid family leave resource provides accessible information and model language for employment contracts and employee handbooks. This free resource explains that every employee should receive twelve weeks of paid leave.
Finally, our congregations and institutions must be safe, harassment-free, respectful communities for employees and all who interact with these organizations in any capacity. Every congregation and institution should have an ethics policy, which is constantly broadcast to all who gather either virtually or in person. In addition, staff and board members must be trained in the procedures that support the policies. Admittedly, upholding good-quality ethics policies can be difficult. It may require standing up to individuals who otherwise are valued in our communities and letting them know that their harmful behavior will not be tolerated. It may even mean asking these productive perpetrators to leave our communities.[i] It is vital that boards and leaders plan and practice procedures and are prepared to act. The Union for Reform Judaism has a complete resource, as well as professionals and lay leaders, to help congregations study and write an ethics code. Sacred Spaces, an organization dedicated to preventing institutional abuse in the Jewish community, has created Keilim, an online, self-guided policy toolkit. In addition, the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ “The Clergy Monologues” and ARJE’s “The Educator Monologues,” with accompanying study guides (Clergy and Educator), are conversation-starting tools to reflect on gender bias in Jewish spaces.
When we describe our Jewish workplaces as “like family,” we unwittingly send the message that our synagogues and institutions do not need to uphold the highest professional standards for ethical employment as informed by our Jewish values and secular laws. As Reform Jews, we can apply our communal passion for egalitarianism and social justice to safeguard every Reform Movement employee and ensure their access to safe, harassment-free, respectful workplaces. Dedicating ourselves to this goal is the greatest way to honor and celebrate our workers this Labor Day.
The CCAR and the Reform Movement have recently celebrated the fiftiethanniversary of women’s inclusion in the American rabbinate, which began with the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand in 1972.As a part of this celebration, CCAR Press has publishedThe First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis, a heartfelt tribute to women rabbis and their indelible impact on all of us. The book features voices from across the Jewish spectrum—many of them pioneers themselves—reflecting on the meaning of this anniversary.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, is one of the contributors to The First Fifty Years. In her piece, she addresses the term “woman rabbi,” discussing the beauty that differences bring to the Jewish communityandwhy we should eradicate the notion of an “ideal” rabbi.
Simply declaring that I am “a rabbi, not a ‘woman rabbi’” does nothing to change the underlying structures and assumptions that continue to hold back our progress as a Reform Movement.
I want to be accepted and celebrated as a woman and a rabbi because I want to eradicate the notion that there is an ideal rabbi, a standard model—white, heterosexual, male, Ashkenazic, etc.— against whom all others are labeled lesser than, deficient, exceptional, strange. Erasing the specificity of my gender or any other aspect of my identity that does not fit a narrow stereotype of “rabbi” might open doors professionally. But at what cost? How much of myself must I leave at the threshold?
As Jews, we should know deeply that difference and distinction and variety are not the problem.
When we bless “separation” at Havdalah, we don’t say, “Thank God there’s Shabbat, so we only have to tolerate those horrible six days temporarily.” No! We say instead, “Thank God there are different kinds of time.”
I want to say: Thank God there are different expressions of sex and gender. Thank God for women rabbis, and nonbinary bet mitzvah students, and transgender cantors, and interfaith families, and folks who have chosen Judaism in myriad ways. None “lesser than.” None the “default.” None the “exception.” None the “distraction.” All feeling truly as though we belong.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi, PhD, is a freelance rabbi dedicated to connecting folks to the breadth and depth of Jewish tradition through inclusive, innovative, and insightful Jewish teaching, speaking, and ritual. You can learn more about her work at www.rabbinikki.com. Rabbi DeBlosi currently serves as Vice President of Varied Rabbinates for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She is a contributor to The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis.
Rabbi Hara E. Person is one of the coeditors of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis, forthcoming from CCAR Press. In this excerpt from the introduction, she discusses the importance of acknowledging the joys, challenges, and complexities that have characterized the half century since women have been included in the American rabbinate.
In many ways, the genesis of this book began with the groundbreaking ordination of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand in 1972 from Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati. But we could also argue that it began with the ordination of Rabbiner Regina Jonas in Berlin in 1935. And further back again, this evolving story began with the many women who aspired to become rabbis throughout Jewish history, whose dreams were deferred by centuries of patriarchy, and who had to find alternative paths of service and leadership.
For me, this book begins on a brownstone stoop in Brooklyn, when my rabbi told me the first woman was being ordained. Until that moment, I had never thought about the fact that women couldn’t be rabbis—it had just never occurred to me that that option wouldn’t be open to me if that was something I wanted to do. And in that moment I was determined to meet this pioneer, this first woman rabbi, who became my hero right then and there. While it was years before I finally met Rabbi Priesand, as a child on that Brooklyn stoop I could not have imagined what her courageous act of opening the door to the rabbinate would mean for me, both personally and professionally. That is an essential debt that can only be paid forward. I hope the publication of this book stands as part of that gratitude, and I am grateful to have Rabbi Priesand’s essay, fittingly, at its start.
This collection serves as a mile marker along the journey, a momentary stopping place for reflection and commemoration. While we experience the evolution of women in the rabbinate as inevitable, that doesn’t mean it was easy. These pages likewise acknowledge challenges and complexities of these fifty years, identifying some of the detours and roadblocks that still lie ahead. Alongside tremendous gains and systemic changes, pain and inequity are not yet eradicated. Women rabbis still face bias, microaggressions, pay inequity, and other obstacles. Naming challenges is one of the ways that we are able to break through the barriers that keep us from getting to the goal of equity.
The work continues. In a mere half century, rabbinic leadership effected a dramatic turning point in Jewish history, an acknowledgment that the voices that were silent or silenced, marginalized, unheard and unseen, are an essential part of the rich and variegated fabric of the Jewish story and must be included. We now claim a richness of experience that nourishes us all, individuals of all genders, identities, and roles in our Jewish communities. Becoming the most beautifully diverse, inclusive, and thriving community of our highest aspirations, we all need to know what has led us here on the path to a healthy, equitable, and flourishing future.
Today we recognize that the rabbinate is made up not only of women and men but also rabbis with diverse gender identities. This knowledge, too, is grounded in Torah. For centuries, our scholars recognized that Genesis celebrates inclusivity: both heaven and earth and the heavenly bodies and angelic beings. God created humans and animals and everything in between. God created human beings in God’s image, a full spectrum of gender expressions and sexualities. Binary thinking has blinded us to a fuller appreciation of the beauty and power of God’s creations. The ongoing work of equity includes all rabbis of every identity, including the full spectrum of gender, sexual, and racial identities. One of the key learnings from these fifty years of change is that the door to opportunity and inclusion must not be opened just once with great fanfare, but must be held open continually for all who wish to enter. As Rabbi Priesand writes in her piece in this collection, “I would like to think that my opening the door for women in the Jewish community was a first step toward opening the door for all who would serve the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Hara E. Person is the chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Previously, she was the CCAR’s chief strategy officer, publisher of CCAR Press, and editor-in-chief of URJ Books and Music. Alongside Jessica Greenbaum and Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, she is coeditor of The First Fifty Years: A Jubilee in Prose and Poetry Honoring Women Rabbis(CCAR Press, 2023).
Let my people go that we may serve YouFor Rabbi Sally Priesand (HUC-JIR 1972) and Lisa Feld (HCRS 2023)
Remember girdles? Remember the anger
we weren’t supposed to show, or even feel?
Remember sitting and waiting to say Bar’chu
as someone counted, Not one, not two . . .
The being invisible, the tears blinked back,
fiercely. Remember the love, the innocence
assaulted, hearing for the first time, those words,
and those words, and those, such words
in a holy book, demeaning me, you, us?
All these years later, I feel the pain, rising,
constricting, afflicting. Remembering. Searching
for a reason to stay: love is stronger than death.
Tears became anger—that word—the ultimate
weapon. She’s an angry woman (so we can
ignore her, put her down, close our ears and hearts).
Blessed be the allies, calling for the first time
from the bimah—Taamod! The ones who broke
through the tight circles on Simchas Torah
and passed us a scroll to hold, to dance with.
The ones who said yes, yes, yes. And yes.
And we, the wrestlers—I won’t let you go
till you bless me. The lust, the longing, to learn,
to leyn, to lead, to bensch, to be counted, to be
called, to locate our wisdom, to inhabit our power
and our tenderness, to build holy communities,
fully and richly as ourselves, as Jewish women,
as rabbis—I won’t let you go till you bless me.
Now, and going forward, now, and for tomorrow,
My heart soars, it flies, it bursts. From Sally to Sandy,
to Sara, from Amy and Amy to Annie, to Ariel,
Deborah, Devorah, wave after wave after wave,
I see joyous throngs—there’s Rachel, and Hara, Jen,
Jamie, Jessica, Jan, and Kara. There’s Sharon, and Sharon,
and Sharon! Too many to name—we’re just getting started!
For so long, the world was unimaginable with you in it,
now, we cannot imagine a world without you.
We bless the work of your hands, we bless
the work of your hearts. We are blessed, to be here,
still, just at the beginning.
Commissioned by Women’s Rabbinic Network in honor of Rabbi Sally J. Priesand
Merle Feldis an acclaimed poet, playwright, educator, and activist. Her previous works include her memoir A Spiritual Life and the poetry collection Finding Words.
In 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. The resolution stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This was a groundbreaking moment in contemporary Jewish history, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah and leading the Jewish community. In 1972, Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who have followed her. Still, even today, the concept of women rabbis can be novel enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, in their geographical location, to serve on boards, and the list goes on. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. Here, we share the “firsts” of Rabbi Karen L. Fox, LMFT, ordained in 1978.The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
It’s quite amazing that 100 years ago the CCAR asserted the possibility of women’s inclusion as rabbis within the Reform community. Although at that time, most women had not come out from behind a mechitza in synagogue settings, and if they did it was to allow family seating in services. Stepping into Jewish leadership would break the halachic/Jewish legal boundaries, the social expectations of women, and the psychosocial transference that congregants project to their rabbis. And yes, change takes time…perhaps 100 years or more.
Finding courage In the 1920s, my great aunt Dr. Charlotte Schwarzenberger (Lotte)studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and became a PhD in Psychology. Her sisters also pushed the envelope for that time— Frida became a LCSW, and Trude, a partner in a citrus import-export business with her husband. My grandmother Berta wanted to go to medical school, but she married early and had two children; she certainly would have loved the medical profession and had the intellect to pursue it. The influence of these great aunts, the Tantes, and my grandmother gave me courage to enter the rabbinate when there was only one woman rabbi yet ordained.
Two male rabbis influenced me as well. Rabbi Haim Asa, a Bulgarian-born refugee became our family rabbi in Fullerton, California. He encouraged me to attend UAHC Camp Swig, and later to enter the rabbinate. His joy of Jewish people and community was contagious. Rabbi Richard Levy, the UCLA Hillel director while I was an undergraduate, also reflected joy and purpose in his love of the rabbinate, encouraging me, saying “It was fun!”
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, ‘None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.’ My response, ‘None of the other rabbis have been women before.’
Rabbi Karen Fox
Firsts, finally When I was ordained from HUC-JIR in 1978, I was approached by the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) to become an assistant regional director. That was clearly flattering—I only knew Reform Jewish life from my HUC-JIR studies, UAHC camps, and my home congregation. It was my opportunity to learn the administrative, social, and political agenda of Reform Judaism. And I grabbed it, also because I could stay in New York as a single woman.
What I now know is that most regional directors were experienced rabbis with pragmatic congregational, administrative, and financial experience they could share with congregations in their areas. Looking back, I believe my unspoken function, was to serve as an informal orientation to Reform congregations regarding women rabbis.
In the hundreds of congregations in the New York and later the New Jersey region, I was often the first women rabbi people would meet, asking me all the awkward woman rabbi questions. I was not offended by their naive or intrusive questions as I understood I was among the first to shift this rabbinic leadership culture. Often I was the only woman professional who was not a secretary or assistant in meetings, board rooms, or conferences.
When meeting with Rabbi Alexander Schindler, I argued for maternity/parental leave, and he responded, “None of our other rabbis asked for parental leave before.” My response, “None of the other rabbis have been women before.”
I received three months and promptly shared this news with my women colleagues.
I felt passion to be the best rabbi I could be representing Reform Judaism at that time and promoting women in the rabbinate as part of my purpose of reseeding Jewish life in America.
I was supported by two outstanding colleagues at the UAHC—Rabbi Alan Bergman and Rabbi Sandy Selzer. Each suggested ways to handle the “old boys” network of the Union and the landmines of their agenda. My women colleagues were the angels to my right and left—especially Rabbi Rosalind Gold and Rabbi Deborah Prinz.
A first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple I was a first at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and I’m grateful to two men for guiding my path. I came to the position as rabbi and camp director because of previous relationships. I knew Rabbi Harvey J. Fields from my New Jersey days, and he had recently become the senior rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Steve Breuer, the executive director, had hired me as a teen to work at Camp Hess Kramer. They both came to bat for me before it was common for women to be on the pulpit and worked with the lay leadership to welcome me as a rabbi there. At Wilshire, there were many firsts: funerals, when folks didn’t really want a woman; weddings for those who had been longtime congregants. Some began with resistance and ended in lifelong respectful and significant relationships. Developing programming for women business professionals, offering support for families experiencing infertility, guiding women to leadership in prayer practice through adult b’nei mitzvah and minyan leadership, celebrating women’s seders in the 1980s; all of these acts were new at the time, as was bringing additional women rabbis to Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
Family first My brother Steven A. Fox is also rabbi and was ordained two years after me, in 1980. He shared his 1980 ordination day with classmate Rabbi Michael Weinberg whose sister is Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus (ordained HUC-JIR, 1979). I gave the invocation and she the benediction. Sharing the rabbinate has allowed us a shared language as siblings, a closeness within a circle of friends and family, and a commitment to common values.
I kvelled at his Installation to the CCAR as Chief Executive and cried at his retirement, knowing how proud our parents would have felt: Dave and Senta Salomons Fox came to American as European refugee survivors, as Dad said “with nothing,” and never imagined that their children would become significant Jewish leaders.
One hundred years ago, in 1922, the CCAR passed a resolution allowing women to be ordained as Reform rabbis. It stated clearly and specifically: “In keeping with the spirit of our age, and the traditions of our Conference, we declare that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” This resolution was groundbreaking, but it’d be another 50 years before the CCAR’s decision resulted in real culture change and before women were given access to the place they rightfully belonged: on the bimah, behind the Torah, leading the Jewish community. In 1972, the peerless Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi in the world ordained by a rabbinical seminary, shattering the stained glass ceiling and becoming a hero and role model for the women who’ve followed her. Still, to this day, the concept of women rabbis is new enough that women are often still firsts—first woman rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi in their town, first woman senior rabbi in their congregation, first woman rabbi to serve on boards. And many women still struggle to be seen as “real” rabbis.
During Women’s History Month—and always—we share the stories of women rabbis, their profound wisdom and impact, and celebrate their unique contributions to the Jewish community. The CCAR is proud to be an organization that lifts up women and has done so for 100 years—and counting.
I grew up in Great Neck, New York assuming that the world was Jewish. Well, not the whole world. But my whole world. Every kid in school. Every house on my block. Every family I knew. “Old Mill Road” was known as “Temple Row.” For some peculiar reason, each of the synagogues were located on Old Mill Road. Every kid I knew went to either Great Neck Synagogue (it was Orthodox), or Temple Israel (it was Conservative), or Temple Beth El (it was Reform).
My family went to Temple Beth El. Or more aptly, my family belonged to Temple Beth El. (Interesting: today more people go to synagogue without becoming members. Back then, people joined synagogues but didn’t go.) My family was definitely among the “didn’t go-ers.” Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was unthinkable not to be a member of a synagogue. My parents were the children of immigrants. Born and bred in Brooklyn. All of my grandparents, were from Poland and had left Poland for America in the early 1920s. My Uncle Aaron was born in Poland. His family was old-fashioned. They kept kosher. They were old-country. My parents were fiercely American. Even though they grew up speaking Yiddish in their home, my parents went to public school and became more American than the pope, to mix a few metaphors.
So I grew up in a household that was NOT observant and NOT religious and NOT kosher. We did NOT honor Shabbat in any way, but my parents were very proud of being Jewish. All their friends were Jewish. They joined a temple once they had children. And since they were blessed with two boys and a girl, they made sure that their two boys had bar mitzvahs. I still had to go to Sunday school, but when it came to the twice-a-week afternoon component that focused on Hebrew, I didn’t have to go. My brothers did. I was given a choice, and at the very wise age of seven, I said no. Besides, the only girl who went to Hebrew school was Marcie Harmon and she was the cantor’s daughter. Why would I do that?
A condition of my going only to Sunday school was that I had to stick it out through Confirmation in the 10th grade. I hated Sunday school. It didn’t mean anything to me. It wasn’t even where I could experience being Jewish because everybody in my public school was Jewish anyway.
When I got to Confirmation, there was a requirement that you had to go to services once a month. I lived for the onegs. The services were—sorry—unbearable. Somehow I learned, mid-year, that if you went to the youth group service, it would “count”’ for the monthly service requirement. I knew it’d be shorter (though I didn’t know if they had onegs there!) but I figured I’d try it.
I walked in, and there was a band on the bimah. Two guitars, a keyboard, and a drummer. They were playing “My Sweet Lord.” I guess you could say that George Harrison made me who I am today. I enjoyed the service, I liked the kids, and I got involved in the youth group. (Just this past February, we had a Zoom youth group reunion. Fifty of us were on the screen. Our youth advisors and our rabbis were also there.)
I had two rabbis: Rabbi Jacob Rudin and Rabbi Jerry Davidson. I didn’t know it at the time, but Rabbi Rudin was the senior rabbi. He looked like God. Or at least, if asked to draw a picture of God, I think everyone would have drawn a picture of Rabbi Rudin. Rabbi Davidson was the young, hip rabbi. Both were extraordinary rabbis.
To this day, I read Rabbi Rudin’s book of sermons every year before the High Holy Days to inspire me. I also quote him at every rabbinic installation I’ve ever been privileged to address. He first said these words to an ordination class of the Hebrew Union College in 1959. They have been in my heart ever since. He implored these about-to-be-rabbis with this advice:
“If you do not love those whom you serve, you will not be successful. If you do not care passionately, you will not convince your hearers that they should. If you preach from outside your subject, you will leave your hearers outside. If you preach from within, you will take your hearers into that same inner place.”
It was in my junior year of high school that I decided I wanted to be a rabbi. I had powerfully spiritual experiences in my youth group. My public high school allowed me to take Hebrew and Yiddish for my foreign language courses. I was also empowered to create my own curriculum and thereby study seriously, one-to-one, with my rabbi who introduced me to Rashi.
Both of my rabbis were great. It was 1971. There were no female rabbis….in the world. I had no female role models, except of course, my mother, who always said I could be anything I wanted to be. Being a rabbi was not what she had in mind. More like President of IBM or the United States. But she came along, and so did my father. They never ceased to be proud of me.
I had one secret though. I was gay. Ironically, I never worried that being female would keep me from being a rabbi. But being gay? That was another story. I worried. A lot. I confided in my friends. I wrote a letter (remember those?) to my high school confidante when we were each at our respective summer camps. I shared my anxiety. Her response—and this is a direct quote because I saved the letter: “What good does it do the Jewish faith for sincerely dedicated and concerned people like yourself to be alienated because of a Neanderthal attitude towards Lesbianism?”
I appreciated her logic. I decided to walk through that door. I had no idea what would hit me after I entered.
But first, I had to go to college. Kenyon College was the best choice I could have made. No Hillel. Barely any Jews, but a great Religion Department and the most Talmudic environment for learning that I have ever experienced.
Noted for its English department, I remember proudly turning in my first English paper— I believe it was on Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When I got it back, it had a big red letter grade that did not make me happy. I had researched and researched. At the end of my paper, my professor had written: “What of it?” I went to speak with him after class and he said, and I am quoting from memory: “If I wanted to know what some important scholar has to say about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, I could look it up myself. I want to know what YOU think.” That became a very important lesson in my life. Kenyon College taught me how to think.
I spent the first semester of my junior year in college in Israel, living on Kibbutz Usha, outside of Haifa. I picked a lot of grapefruit, ate a lot of falafel, learned Hebrew at the kibbutz ulpan, and went twice a week to the University of Haifa. I fell in love with everything about Israel, and when I came back to the United States I explored joining Garin Arava, a group of young Reform Jewish Americans who were trying to establish the first-ever Reform kibbutz in Israel. Which path should I follow? Rabbi or Kibbutznik? Both afforded me the opportunity to live a serious, liberal Jewish life in community with others. Matthew Sperber, a Great Neck classmate of mine, was also in Garin Arava. He ended up starting what became Kibbutz Yahel in 1977. He still lives there. The headline of a recent article about his life reads: “His Mother Wanted Him to Be a Rabbi, But He Went to Build a Kibbutz.” I decided to apply to rabbinical school.
Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute for Religion has four campuses: New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem. My family had moved from Great Neck to Santa Monica, so I figured I would go to rabbinical school in Los Angeles.
If I got in. I wasn’t worried about the academics and I wasn’t worried about the Hebrew. I was worried about the psychological testing you were required to undergo. Among the battery of tests was the Rorschach. In one of the inkblots, I saw two people kissing each other. I was convinced they would identify me as lesbian and there would be no rabbinical school for me. Oh, I neglected to say, but surely you realize—in 1977 there was NO CHANCE that a gay person would be accepted into rabbinical school. Zero. None.
I worried and worried, but a family friend who was also a psychologist, assured me that the inkblot was called, in the biz, “the love card.” “They just want to make sure you see love,” she said. Which I did.
I hated my first year of rabbinical school. I loved being in Jerusalem, but none of my classes did what Kenyon College had done. It wasn’t about thinking. It wasn’t about meaning. It was more about cramming and regurgitating. Thank God for Jerusalem. The city became my classroom and I was eager to learn.
Back in Los Angeles, school was better. But I was closeted. I still couldn’t be my whole self. So, I took a leave of absence to see if I was better suited to be a bank teller. I went to San Francisco for the year but never made it as a bank teller. I got a job with the Union for Reform Judaism and developed retreat programming for students all over the Bay Area so they might have a better time in Religious School than I had experienced.
I returned to rabbinical school, but this time in New York. The campus is right off of Washington Square and I figured that would be a better environment in which to plant myself. I was still closeted. The College made it very clear, in no uncertain terms, that if they learned that a student was gay they would be expelled. I confided in friends, I came out to my parents, but while I didn’t fear that my good friends would break my confidence, they feared that my own yearning to be open would ruin me. As Rachel Kadish wrote in The Weight of Ink, her recent book about the Inquisition: “Truth-telling is a luxury for those whose lives aren’t at risk.”
I was ordained May 24, 1984. I stepped off the bimah at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue in New York, and onto an airplane headed to Minnesota to become the assistant rabbi at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul. My motto: “To know me is to love me.” Surely, once we get to know each other, everything will be okay.
I had a blessed four-year tenure at Mt. Zion Temple. I loved the temple and the people who comprised it. We flourished together. Though it was not yet an official federal policy, I think we lived happily together under the rubric of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Falling in love with Nancy Abramson changed all that. While Nancy and I still jointly adhered to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy, our decision to live together pushed Mt. Zion members over the brink. Rumors started to fly and complaints started to be registered with the senior rabbi at the time. He and I had such a good relationship that I had shared my sexual orientation with him back in my first year, and he was okay with that, as long as it remained a secret. It wasn’t a secret anymore and there were an awful lot of complaints, he told me, and so, he told me, I would have to go. And now, get this: I understood! Of course, I would have to go.
But thankfully, when my departure was announced, there were members of the congregation who did NOT understand. There was a ruckus. On Thursday, February 18, 1988, I received a phone call from Clark Morphew. He was the religion editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. We had a relationship over the years. He told me, not unkindly, that there was going to be an article in the next day’s paper.
There was a lot of snow on the ground when I woke up that next day. I walked down our driveway and pulled the newspaper out of the mailbox. I opened it. My knees started shaking. Front page. Headline. Lesbian Rabbi Fired. So much for “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
First worry: our kids. They were in fourth grade and seventh grade. What would happen to them? That evening, Jill’s best friend’s parents came over with flowers. Charlie’s best friend’s parents came with a box of chocolates. Nancy and I cried. So much hate, and so much love.
Our family’s world was imploding and exploding around us. But I truly felt the fierce power of the biblical words: those who sow in tears will reap in joy (Psalm 126:5). And at the end of the day, that is exactly what happened: those congregants at Mt. Zion Temple who felt they’d lost their spiritual home created a new one. They called it Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope. In June of 1988, Shir Tikvah became the first mainstream congregation to hire an openly gay rabbi. Together, over twenty years, we grew the congregation from 40 households to 400 households.
I loved my congregation, and I poured myself into my work. We were true partners in creating meaning in people’s lives, shifting the world towards justice, and living and breathing Jewish values and teachings. Nancy and I assumed we’d one day retire in Minnesota, she from her amazing career in mental health, and me from Shir Tikvah. We’d live happily ever after and one day be buried in that beautiful Jewish cemetery around the corner from where we lived.
But that was not to happen. Out of the blue, I received a phone call one day from the President of the Union for Reform Judaism. I was recruited to be a Vice President at the URJ. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of being the rabbi of one congregation, I would be rabbi to the 900 congregations that formed the URJ. Besides: our daughter and son-in-law now lived in New York and my parents had come back to New York, where my mother was now living with terminal cancer. It had always plagued me that I wouldn’t be able to walk with her through her final days and this was an opportunity to do just that.
Nancy and I packed up our Prius and moved to New York City. We did have more time with our children, and yes, our first grandchild was born and we were able to be right there. Nancy and I spent time with my mother daily. She died ten weeks after we came to New York.
I missed synagogue life. I missed holding the Torah. I missed being able to make a difference in people’s lives. Being a bureaucrat, I discovered, was not for me.
But what to do? Shir Tikvah had been my “one and only.” I wasn’t convinced that I could go back to synagogue life. So I decided to try it out by serving as an interim rabbi at Adath Emanuel, a congregation in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. I loved my time at Adath. I loved being back at the synagogue, standing on the bimah before the open ark. I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to seek a long-term relationship with a congregation.
And that is where Temple Beth Tikvah comes into the story. It felt like a match made in heaven. The people. The values. The potential. The history. The hope. Nancy and I were taken with it all.
You are all a part of the rest of the story. Nancy and I have treasured our years with you. We have grown together and learned together and been challenged together. There have been births and b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and death. There has been illness and recovery. There has been a pandemic, and still, we are building and growing.
And soon, there will be a new chapter. A new chapter for Temple Beth Tikvah and a new chapter for Nancy and me. In Mishnah Pirkei Avot, the rabbis discuss the proper relationship with the Torah. It counsels that the Torah should never be a kardom lachpor, the Torah should never be a spade to dig with. In other words, don’t use it to make a living. Rather, the best experience of Torah, the best learning of Torah, is torah lishmah, Torah that is learned for its own sake (Pirkei Avot 4:5).
It’s a tricky path, but I have been blessed to have my life’s work be Torah. And soon, upon retirement, I look forward to the sweetest Torah of all, that which is lishmah, Torah for its own sake.
I feel twice blessed. It has been a privilege to make a career of Torah and to be personally sustained and anchored by Torah at the very same time.
Rabbi Stacy Offner served as the Rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah from 2012 – 2021. Rabbi Offner is also the Founding Rabbi Emerita of Shir Tikvah Congregation in Minneapolis. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of Kenyon College, Rabbi Offner earned both her M.A. and Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa, from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.For more about women in the rabbinate, read The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.
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.
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.
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.
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 Rabbinatemirrors 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.
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.