Categories
News

Why Requesting the “Male” Rabbi Just Isn’t Acceptable Anymore (if it ever was)

The email arrived Thursday morning – a couple set to be married on Sunday was in desperate need of an officiant. Their rabbi had a medical emergency and could no longer perform the ceremony.  A friend had forwarded the query – could anybody help?

It seemed clear from the wording that any rabbi – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox would work.   Never one to not do my best and knowing a couple of rabbis in the town where the ceremony was to be held, I reached out to see if they were available.  It was only upon speaking to one of them that I learned a key element of the request had been missing. The request was for a male rabbi.  As it turned out, the couple or their family had made inquiries and it had been made clear – they were in search of a male rabbi who could perform the ceremony.

I was a little more than ticked off.  I was mad. Pretty mad. A female rabbi was insufficient, even when a family was in a pinch because their original choice had a medical emergency,

There wasn’t much I could do with my anger.  I informed my friend and the other rabbis who received the original request as to what had happened.  I think I wanted company in my anger.

That led to a fascinating exchange with a close friend who is, like me, a female rabbi. The conversation made me realize that although this example may seem like a little deal to some, it actually has lasting implications for the equity of female clergy in our movement and in our country. 

When a couple, or in some cases, their parents, ask for a male rabbi to perform a wedding ceremony, the result is that clergy as women become invisible, and are viewed as less than.  Even though the intention may not be present, the impact is no different.  This is so much more than hurting an individual woman’s feeling.  This is about an injury to women as a class of people, women as rabbis, or women as cantors.  In the business world, we call this sexual discrimination.  In the congregational world, some call it “individual religious freedom.”

I would add that I also have no tolerance for the family who asks for the female rabbi to do the bat mitzvah, or the funeral.  There is no special magic either gender, or non-binary individuals, receive  during that moment of ordination at the Ark.  We are who we are, equally capable in our abilities to preside at liminal, sacred moments of our people no matter the biology or gender identification we carry.

Allow me for a moment to inject some discomfort here – particularly for the reader who may still not be convinced.  I would like you to replace the binary of male/female and replace it with white/black or straight/gay.  Imagine someone calling up and asking that the white rabbi do the ceremony, and not the Jew of Color rabbi.  Imaging someone calling up and saying, ‘I don’t want the gay rabbi to do our son’s wedding.’  The answer seems obvious, doesn’t it? 

Sometimes our jobs as clergy is to listen to our people, and sometimes our job as clergy is to be truth-tellers, even when it might be hard for them to hear.   The next time you, or your colleague, or your congregation receives a request for the male rabbi, please consider saying some version of the following:  “I would really love to help you, but fulfilling that request would require me to go against my values of gender equity and seeing people in their wholeness as a human being, and not simply by their biology. I hope we can help you in the future.”

And the beautiful nechemta (comforting ending ) to the story with which I began – the couple were successfully married on Sunday, by an able and accomplished female rabbi, fairly pregnant with her first child.  I don’t know what the reaction was to that visual. My hope and prayer is that in that moment, a taste of redemption could be felt by all those in the room. 

Rabbi Esther L. Lederman is the Director of Congregational Innovation at the URJ and sits on the CCAR Task Force on the Experience of Women in the Rabbinate.

Categories
Convention

Words into Deeds: The New CCAR Task Force on Women’s Experiences in the Rabbinate

Rabbi Sally Priesand once said that, “The Central Conference of American Rabbis has been on record since 1922 as being in favor of the ordination of women, but it took fifty years to change the attitudes of people.”[1] Reform Judaism, a denomination that now accepts female rabbis, did not always hold this perspective. Many fears surrounded the concept of female rabbis—a concept that not only challenged a patriarchal, Jewish tradition but also gender-role stereotypes. As a result of these fears, female rabbis had difficulty obtaining pulpit placements. Therefore, in 1976 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) organized the Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate, which strived to promote the full acceptance of female rabbis.

Similarly, in December of 2017, in order to respond to the challenges faced by this century’s female rabbis, the CCAR organized the Task Force on Women’s Experiences in the Rabbinate. While much progress has been made since the last task force, there are still many obstacles to overcome in order to achieve gender equality in the rabbinate. Led by Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Vice-Chair Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, the task force has implemented a three-year plan, with this first year dedicated towards inquiry.

On Monday, March 19th at the 2018 CCAR Convention, a special listening session was held to begin the anonymous information gathering and to learn what areas must be addressed. Through the use of virtual, rapid polling, attendees were asked to respond to questions by typing them into a survey site. The questions revolved around female rabbinic experiences with gender bias in the hiring and advancement process, sexual harassment and assault, statements on appearance made by laypeople, speech by male colleagues and gender dynamics in Jewish institutions. A main ballroom was filled by female and male colleagues of all ages for this interactive session that also allowed time for table discussions. Participants shared about their interactions and experiences, which were transcribed by table leaders. Taking part in this process was a unique opportunity and was surely history in the making!

Although I am newly ordained, I too, directly and indirectly, already know of the challenges female rabbis face. The experience of gender-based comments and undermining behavior, as well as the struggle to negotiate a respectable amount of paid maternity leave all form an insensitive reality that can and should be changed. Although this reality is shaped by a combination of a patriarchal, Jewish tradition and secular, societal trends, if anyone can be the trailblazer of institutional gender equality, it is the CCAR—it is the same organization that was the first to ordain women, and it is the same denomination that was the first to promise religious equality for women in synagogue life.

I am proud of the CCAR for starting this difficult but imperative endeavor that will challenge and be challenged by society’s gender norms. I am proud of HUC-JIR for beginning the conversation on gender inequality these past two years by leading workshops on micro-aggressions, power dynamics and sexual harassment. It is vital for students, staff and professors to be aware of these gendered experiences and to understand how they can play a role in changing the culture of our institutions. Last but not least, I am proud of our male colleagues who are not afraid to be allies and advocates in cultivating and upholding gender equality. As Rabbi Weinberg Dreyfus stated, “The outcome we seek is not just a program or a policy but cultural change within the rabbinate and the movement at large.” Through consciousness-raising, policy-making and accountability, we can achieve this cultural change.

Rabbi Sally Priesand, who was in attendance at this session and who received an applause of appreciation, once wrote that the “the best way to assure that our Movement’s recognition of women is more than symbolic is to bring women into leadership roles on the national as well as the congregational level, to turn our resolutions of the past decade into reality, to translate our words into deeds.”[2] She knew that real change did not come by just identifying concerns and setting goals but by implementing a plan and following through with it. May we once again hold our words and intentions accountable so that they are transformed into deeds.

Rabbi Allison B. Cohen serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, FL.

 

 

[1] Interview. Interview With First Female Rabbi. ABC News. 25 Nov. 1973. Television.

[2] Priesand, Rabbi Sally. Letter to Rabbi Alexander Schindler. 1979. Print.

Categories
Books gender equality

A Mirror, a Prism, and a Telescope: Reimagining Role Models

No one ever told me that I couldn’t be a rabbi because of my gender. That was one of the gifts of growing up in a Reform synagogue in the 1980s. Although our congregation’s senior rabbi adhered to one of the classic male clergy stereotypes—a tall, well-groomed, be-robed figure with four children, and a wife who sang in the choir and taught Hebrew school—I saw many women serving as cantors and assistant rabbis, both in my home congregation and at my Jewish summer camp. One Shabbat, just a few months before my bat mitzvah, I looked at our rabbi and said to myself, definitively, “I can do that.” I felt this revelation in my entire body, as though a switch had been flipped and the light had come on.

I didn’t think of my choice as “feminist,” nor did I see myself as wanting to be a “woman rabbi.” This was simply what I wanted to be when I grew up—a rabbi. Young girls of my generation expected to find the doors to every possible career open to us. We were told to “reach for the stars.” We believed that we would be able to simultaneously pursue exciting professions, loving partnerships, and a fulfilling family life, without any difficulty. The only person who showed any hesitation was my grandmother, who considered religion a “dirty business” for either a man or a woman.

As an undergraduate student at Brandeis University, I began to understand some of the challenges I would face as a woman in this field. During my first conversation with an Orthodox Jew, I asked what he thought of women rabbis and he said, “No such thing.” I realized that in this world beyond my Reform synagogue, I was going to have to fight to prove my authenticity: as a student of Judaism, as a community leader, as a Reform Jew, and as a woman.Sacred Calling

Ironically, this fight only intensified when I began my rabbinical studies in Jerusalem. While questions of pluralism and authenticity were aired in the open at Brandeis, some members of the faculty at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem warned us against engaging Israelis about the nature of our studies. Because many Israelis I met felt disdain toward women rabbis and suspicion of Reform Jews in general, I was unable to share my experience outside the walls of HUC-JIR. I returned to the United States feeling as if I had spent a year living underwater.

When I began teaching Torah to children and adults, the challenge of proving my own authenticity in the context of the Jewish tradition gave way to the challenge of proving the relevance of our sacred stories in the context of modernity and feminism. If my goal was to convince my students—many of whom were young women—that the Bible was pertinent to their lives, I was going to have to help them find characters to whom they could relate and heroines they could admire.

This was not an easy task, and one incident sticks out in my mind.

One morning after religious school t’filah, a feisty twelve-year-old girl approached me with a question—or rather, a comment—about our prayer service: “Why do we bother to include the names of the Matriarchs in the Amidah?” she exclaimed. “I don’t want to be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. They’re just the Patriarchs’ wives. They didn’t do anything.”

This student’s words helped me to realize that I couldn’t escape from the challenges of being labeled a “woman rabbi.” While I had once shied away from a gendered study of Judaism, I now faced opposition both from those who thought I should not be a rabbi and those who, like my student, thought that Judaism was inherently patriarchal.

This opposition inspired me to look to Jewish literature for models of powerful women. The stories I found—particularly in the Bible— turned what I thought I knew about biblical women on its head. Scattered among the narratives in which women were portrayed “only” as wives and mothers—or, worse, as concubines and prostitutes—were scenes in which women showed agency and effected change, both through their words and through their actions.

When I teach Bible and midrash, I tell my students that we can view the Torah as a mirror, a prism, and a telescope: a mirror in which we can see ourselves, a prism through which we can look at the world, and a telescope that we can point heavenward in our search for God.

Looking back on the stories that inspired me at various phases of my own learning, I realized that I was not only seeking out these stories for my students. I needed to find them for myself. I, too, was looking for the mirror, the prism, and the telescope in our sacred stories, and the women I studied reflected where I was in my own journey, how I saw the world I lived in, and the woman, and the rabbi, that I hoped to become.

Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz was ordained in 2008 by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where she also earned a Master of Arts in Religious Education. She is the rabbi at Vassar Temple in Poughkeepsie, NY.  Rabbi Berkowitz will be a panelist at “The Sacred Calling: Then and Now” on Thursday, September 8th, 11:00 AM at HUC-JIR in New York.

Excerpted from The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, “A Mirror, a Prism, and a Telescope: Reimagining Role Models”.

Categories
Books

A Commitment to the Survival, Resilience, and Creativity of the Jewish People

“This book is a sacred calling to be committed to the survival and resilience and creativity of the Jewish people. That women are acknowledged as a part of this mainstream commitment is huge.”

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Rabbi Karen Fox, Rabbi Emerita of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and first woman rabbi to serve the national Reform Jewish Movement as a Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union of Reform Judaism), tells us about her own rabbinical career and why The Sacred Calling is important to her.

Q: Growing up, you likely had a vision in your head of what it would be like to be a rabbi. Was it based on what you saw in rabbis growing up? What part of the rabbi’s role made you want to fulfill this position?Sacred Calling cover

A: The biggest part of the rabbi’s role that made me want to fulfill this position was being involved in Jewish continuity. My parents were immigrants and they were survivors. I wanted to be involved in the continuity of Jewish life. And the things that I imagined myself doing were teaching and guiding. If I reflect back on my career, I’ve been involved in advocacy, teaching, guiding, and mentoring. I had a hunch, early on, that these things would be my areas.

Q: As one of the first female rabbis, what obstacles have you faced in the rabbinate?

A: Learning how to look like a woman, and a rabbi, and simultaneously trying to convey a sense of honor and modesty and power can be difficult. If people are distracted by a girly dress or an unprofessional look, that gets in the way of addressing people. In one instance, I realized that the only feminine thing that shows from under my robe is my curly hair and my shoes. These two points seem to be a beeline for some people eyes; people trying to look for the woman under the mushroom-like robe. And I realized that if you don’t like look like the mother figure, or the father figure, or the non-anxious presence that people imagine, then they’re not always satisfied. And whether it’s in clothes, or in word, or in ritual garb, people might be disappointed that we’re not who they imagined we were. But we have to know this, and be comfortable with who we are.

Q: Have you seen a change in the attitudes of people towards women rabbis during your years in the rabbinate?

A: I’m teaching rabbinic students now. There is a general acceptance that women are and can be rabbis, and the students accept and believe that everything will be open to them. And I’m not so sure, because I think if women don’t learn to advocate for themselves, they won’t receive the same money or the same benefits. The less women see themselves as of value – and worthy of demanding value – the fewer benefits we will bring to the field. That concerns me.

Q: What do you see as the next challenges to be met in the struggle towards equal rights in Reform Judaism? What are the next barriers?

A: I think one barrier, on the part of women, is a lackadaisical attitude towards feminists/feminism. Some people think that all doors have been opened. I do not know that all doors have been opened. For example, there was a period of time when people chose to keep their own names, and I see many women at the college who are taking their husband’s names. Does that reflect a lesser assertiveness as a feminist and a religious leader? I’m concerned about that. I am also concerned about Jewishness. I think that sometimes we can be so caught up as social justice advocates that we often forget our Jewish mission for the Jewish people.

Q: What purpose do you think The Sacred Calling will serve?

A:  I believe that The Sacred Calling is very important.  Historically, women were not part of the leadership in Jewish life; today we are. The book is a sacred calling to be committed to the survival and resilience and creativity of the Jewish people. That women are acknowledged as a part of this mainstream commitment is huge. I want my rabbinic students to have this book as required reading, the men and the women, because they’re often surprised at my story.

Rabbi Karen Fox is Rabbi Emerita of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She was the first woman rabbi to serve at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and, from 1978-1982, was the first woman rabbi to serve the national Reform Jewish Movement as a Regional Director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union of Reform Judaism). 

Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling.

Categories
Books

The Sacred Calling: Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling of Traditionalism

“Ultimately, I think that anyone of any level of Jewish literacy can find something in The Sacred Calling that will inspire them to see the possibilities offered by the Reform world to join this fight, and to take this fight out into the world at large.”

 

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Andrue Kahn, rising 4th year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York and author of The Sacred Calling Study Guide, talks about the impact that both women rabbis and the book itself have made in his own life.

Q: Describe your first encounter with a woman rabbi.

A: Growing up, I don’t think I ever encountered a woman rabbi. Certainly not at my synagogue, which was a very small synagogue in Tacoma, Washington. There were women on the bimah, and cantorial soloists, and women from the congregation that would share music or words, but there was never a female rabbi. I don’t remember encountering one until I was an adult.

One woman rabbi that, since adulthood, has impacted my life is Rabbi Lisa Rubin. When I met her, I was already thinking about becoming a rabbi, but I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go to rabbinical school, or get a PhD in Jewish studies or something to that effect, and she really pushed me to apply to HUC-JIR. She married me and my wife and we remain in contact with her. She really embodies the kind of rabbinate that I want, and she’s an incredible mentor and woman.

Q: How has the presence of women rabbis influenced our Jewish communities? Do you see changes in Jewish life attributed to women entering the rabbinate?

A: I think that there was a lot of stagnation in the Jewish world for a while because people, and especially people in leadership positions, had become comfortable in their roles. I think the experience of being a woman in America pushes women to work harder, think harder, and, unfortunately, to prove themselves in a world that is still mostly dominated by men.  And women, having to fight to break into this world dominated by men, broke boundaries and stirred up new innovation that the people who were in seats of power (who were all men) wouldn’t have done. And having to break through that glass ceiling of traditionalism made it inherent that they become more creative, and more comfortable with breaking boundaries.

Q: You wrote the study guide for The Sacred Calling. How is the book structured?

A: The structure of The Sacred Calling is really great in that it starts out looking at the history of women in Judaism in general. It examines women who attempted to and often succeeded in taking leadership roles in Jewish history, and then goes on to look at the process of allowing women to become rabbis from within the Reform Movement. Eventually, it examines the process from within the Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements. From different women’s points of view, we read the stories of the initial struggles of the past, as well of women who are still struggling with inequality in the rabbinate (in both pay and leadership positions).

Q: What surprised you about the book? Did you learn something you didn’t know before?

A: Reading about the influence of Reform rabbis on ritual was really, really interesting and surprising, in that I had never thought about the fact that women who would break through the boundary of becoming a clergy member would, of course, also have to fight to have their needs met in Jewish ritual and liturgy. Because of this fight, breaking boundaries would create this great blossoming in our nation that we’re still benefiting from. Just the idea of having to reinvent everything to suit underrepresented voices allowed for innovations in different kinds of rituals.

Q: What do you believe is the importance of the book?

A: For me personally, the importance of The Sacred Calling is that I, as a man, take so much for granted, and therefore assume that the struggles presented in the book aren’t as present as they clearly are. Women still struggle against a male-dominated society. And it might happen a little less obviously, but there are still issues specifically faced by women that men don’t often get to hear about in the detail that we find in this book. I also think that it could be very powerful for women in the rabbinate and outside the rabbinate to read the stories, and to know that there are people facing these issues. This book is full of stories of women who have had these kinds of experiences, from ancient times to today (when we are still fighting against issues with family leave, equal pay, and even just daily sexism).

The Sacred Calling Study Guide

Andrue Kahn, a rising 4th year rabbinical student, is doing a student residency at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Seattle, and in the coming year he will be the organizing rabbinic intern at East End Temple in Manhattan.

Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling. Watch the official trailer now.

Categories
Books gender equality

A Sacred Calling as a Sacred Role

“My Judaism encourages me to focus on a personal relationship with God, to know myself, and to know God; to use my skills and strengths in making the world a better place. I think it’s a universal mission and has nothing to do with gender. I think Judaism encourages us to think about what everybody’s sacred role is.”

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Upon the publication of The Sacred Calling, we sat down with (now Rabbi) Toba Schaller, approximately the 760th woman to be ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and 5th year rabbinical student at the time of the interview, to discuss the impact of women in the rabbinate upon a woman and mother about to embark on her own journey as a newly ordained clergy member.Sacred Calling

Q. What made you decide that you wanted to be a rabbi? In other words, what was your sacred calling?

A. I grew up in rural Texas in a very small Jewish community. I went to Jewish summer camp and I studied Jewish studies and anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. After a few years, I found myself in my twenties not knowing what I wanted to do and working as a cocktail waitress at a bar. I became friends with the daughter of the bar owner, who was eleven years old. She started asking me questions about Judaism. Her father asked me if I would pick her up from school one day a week and formally teach her Jewish values, Jewish culture, and basic Hebrew. I then found myself asking for Friday nights off of work so I could take her to synagogue and to family holiday events with me. At some point I said to her, “How did this happen? If you had asked me before, I would have said I was living a totally secular life.” And she said to me, “You talk about being Jewish all the time, and you love Judaism.” She told me that other waitresses in the bar talk about their boyfriends or what’s on TV, and that she heard me debating the value of faith in the world with customers at the bar. I think she really helped me realize that the Torah was in me, whether I recognized it or not, and that what I really love to do is talk, think, and do Torah. After the next few years of working in the Jewish community, I knew that I was ready to be a student instead of a teacher: I was ready for rabbinical school. I was twenty eight when I applied to rabbinical school.

Q. What interested you most in The Sacred Calling and why?

A. Something I appreciated in the history of women in the rabbinate was the lesson about the importance of mentorship in successfully bringing people in from the margins, as well as the importance of membership to the overall success of new clergy members. I feel really lucky that I have had such wonderful mentors at HUC-JIR, and now through the CCAR, as we head into the field.

After reading The Sacred Calling, I feel really lucky to have been given different models for what a rabbinic career can look like. The book has allowed me to see myself as a mother and a woman and a rabbi much more easily.

Q. Debra Reed Blank talks about “the tension between feminism and Judaism” in her chapter, “Making Up for Lost Time: Female Rabbis and Ritual Change” (p. 433). Do you think that this tension is inherent in Judaism or was it developed and encouraged as an interpretation of Judaism by groups trying to keep the power contained within the constraints of their own system?

A. I don’t think there’s tension at all between feminism and Judaism. I have found that my feminism is really informed by my Judaism and vice versa, and I haven’t found conflicts in the Judaism that I know and that I experience. I have seen it in other forms of Judaism, and in other ways of practicing Judaism, but, ultimately, I think that any challenges between feminism and Judaism come from the way Judaism is interpreted, and are not inherent to the religion. I find Judaism really empowering.

Q. There is a chapter in the book by Denise Eger titled “Creating Opportunities for the ‘Other.’” Rabbi Eger talks about the mere act of ordaining women as an important contribution to the inclusion of the “other” in Judaism. What do you see as the next challenges to be met in the struggle towards equal rights in Judaism? What are the next barriers and how do you envision breaking them?

A. I think we’ve come a long way when it comes to the LGBTQ community. We’ve become much more open to queer identity. But we’re not all the way there, and we still have a long way to go before we are really open to people who don’t fit the gender binary.

We’re working on it at HUC-JIR and, for the first time, at least since I’ve been there, we have a gender-inclusive bathroom, which seems like a little thing, but took a long time. It’s a huge step in the right direction, but, as I said, we still have a long way to go.

I am personally really active in working towards inclusions for interfaith families in the places that I work. This, I know, is the big talking point of the movement right now, but it has been for a really long time, you know? Alexander Schindler put it on the agenda in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it’s still something that we haven’t figured out how to do fully. I look forward, in my rabbinate, to working on inclusion. I want to make sure that people on the edges of our community are welcome.

I think The Sacred Calling can help us think inclusively; I think there are lessons in the book from the women who fought their way to leadership roles and, in so doing, taught us to bring other marginalized groups into the center. And I think that women have come a long way, but we’re not all the way there yet either, and that perspective helps us to be more inclusive of other members of our community.

Rabbi Toba Schaller graduated from HUC-JIR in 2016 and is now Rabbi and Director of Lifelong Learning at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshrun of Wisconsin.

Excerpted from the official book trailer of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate.  Watch the trailer now.

 

Categories
Books

The Sacred Calling: A Call to Action

“The Sacred Calling is not just an important historical narrative—it is a call to action.”

The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, newly published by CCAR Press, examines the ways in which the reality of women in the rabbinate has impacted upon all aspects of Jewish life. Rabbi Peter Berg, Senior Rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, GA, sits down to talk about the progress we’ve made in the last four decades and the distance we still have left to travel.

Q: In a chapter in the book titled “Creating Opportunities for the ‘Other,’” Rabbi Denise Eger states the significance of women’s ordination in the inclusion of the “other” in Judaism. What are the next challenges to be faced?

A: The ordination of women as rabbis opened up the door for the “other” in a way that we never could have fully understood. Today, we look at the community around us, and ask, “What is the next big hurdle before us?” I think it unfolds in the following way: first of all, as Rabbi Eger mentions in the book, gay and lesbian and transgender Jews do not get to enjoy the same equality in the placement process that female rabbis now enjoy. The second is Jews of color. We have so many Jews of color here in Atlanta, and it won’t be long before some decide to go to rabbinic school. They are great teachers and great scholars, and we’ll have to figure out how we, as a Reform Movement, will accept more Jews of color as part of our rabbinate. The third and final area that I think we have to look at is Jews who converted to Judaism earlier in their life, and now are rabbis. We have members of our congregation who are looking at rabbinical school who are converts, and there’s incredible discrimination in the Jewish community towards those who converted and are therefore perceived as not fully authentic.Sacred Calling

Q: What barriers still exist for women rabbis?

A:  There are many challenges that our female colleagues face, and I’ll just enumerate a few of them. The first, I think, is salary discrepancy. It’s far more pronounced in the rabbinate than most people believe. Women clergy earn 76 cents on the dollar, and the reason why that’s so problematic is that the national average pay gap is 83 cents. So women clergy are earning less on the dollar than they would with most other jobs in the United States.

The second would be in paid family leave. We’ve really only just begun the conversations about paid family leave. All of our European counterparts figured out a long time ago that paid family leave benefits not only the mother, but also the congregation when the rabbi comes back to work. I believe we have a long way to go in not just tolerating paid family leave, but encouraging it, and speaking about it with the support that it deserves.

The third area of challenge is in the placement process. We have come a long way over the years, and if you look at the demographics in the country today, so many women rabbis serve in some of the greatest congregations in the country. But there are still some areas of the country where women have a far more difficult time in the placement process than their male counterparts.

A final challenge that I think our female colleagues face is acceptance in the wider Jewish community. We’re fortunate here in Atlanta that our Modern Orthodox colleagues sit at the table with our women rabbis. They call them “rabbi,” and they work with them with great honor. But in many places in the country, this is not the case, and our female colleagues are not afforded the same honor that our male colleagues enjoy. And I think we have a responsibility to try to equal the playing field on that front.

I believe that men and male rabbis can be feminist rabbis as well. It’s a different kind of feminist rabbi, obviously, but we have a responsibility to make sure that our female colleagues enjoy the same benefits and the same options in the placement system that male rabbis have enjoyed for many, many decades.

Q: What purpose do you believe The Sacred Calling to serve? What is the importance of the book?

A: The Sacred Calling is as much a historical perspective as it is a calling to all of us today. I believe it is required reading for all rabbis, for all cantors, for all Jewish educators, and all Jewish professionals. Every single congregational leader has a responsibility to read this important book.

Most people don’t know our history; they don’t understand that it was in the early ‘70s that Sally Priesand first became a rabbi. So the first important reason that we need this book is to help our congregants understand the significance of women becoming rabbis. And the second is to figure out what we can do now to make sure that the challenges that are on the table for women rabbis – pay equity, the placement process, acceptance in the wider community, paid family medical leave – all of these challenges are addressed and understood, and that they truly are one of the social justice issues of our time. This book is the moral calling that will help us understand not just the historical perspective, but also how we can take those challenges that still exist and build a better rabbinate for the future.

Rabbi Peter Berg serves The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.  

Excerpted from the filming of the official trailer for The Sacred Calling. Watch the official trailer now. 

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 gender equality

Complete Equality Comes to the Reform Ordination

I recently had the pleasure of sitting with a group of women days before their ordination as Reform rabbis. On that magical cusp between school and new career, they were filled with pride and anticipation. Five years of hard work were coming to an end and the next chapters of their lives were rapidly unfurling. They spoke excitedly of their new positions in congregations and organizations; they showed off pictures of new homes and offices.

As we sat in celebration and reflection, I asked them about the experience of customizing their s’michah documents, the certificate received at the ordination ceremony. For the first time in forty-four years, the women ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) 1) will receive certificates to document their ordination that are completely equal to the ones bestowed on their male classmates and 2) will have the choice of their Hebrew title. While this event will slip by largely unsung, it is historic and significant.

In 1972, the momentous ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by a seminary, was celebrated throughout the world. As many fêted this significant step forward for Jewish feminism, it was not noted that Rabbi Priesand received a slightly different s’michah document than her male classmates. Archival evidence, as well as the fact that some of her seminary professors refused to sign her certificate, point to the fact that the new language created for her singular s’michah was born out of great discomfort with a woman being ordained rabbi.

The ordination documents of male and female Reform rabbis have an English and Hebrew side. They are not direct translations of each other. On that historic day, Rabbi Priesand was handed an empty tube, as the faculty took so long to debate the content of her certificate’s Hebrew side. Weeks later when she did receive it, the world was too busy watching her be a rabbi to notice that the title written in Hebrew was significantly different than every other Reform rabbi ordained since 1883. In the English version, all graduates are referred to as rabbi, but in Hebrew Rabbi Priesand was named רב ומורה rav u’morah, while her male classmates were ordained מורנו הרב moreinu harav. The former is a nice title aptly describing what rabbis do, but it lacks majesty and history. The title is pareve, bland. The latter is an historic title used since the 14th century. Its possessive plural, our teacher the rabbi, lends the validation of the community; its provenance gives a nod to the continuity of tradition. This is precisely why, I believe, the Cincinnati HUC-JIR faculty of 1972 avoided extending the title to Rabbi Priesand.

Sometimes inequity is perpetuated because discrepancies blend into our communities, becoming convention. Usually, they are not continued out of malice, but of habit. And so, for forty-three years, Reform women rabbis received ordination certificates containing a tacit slight to the equality of women rabbis. From this year forward, the language has been amended to create complete equality. The new s’michah document is something for the Reform movement to applaud. HUC-JIR adds this step forward to the tremendous transformation of their faculty over the last 20 years to include world class scholars who are women. Now with the process of creating fully egalitarian s’michah language, HUC-JIR is also giving women rabbis the choice of Hebrew title. The new rabbis can pick between using רב rav, the traditional Hebrew word for male rabbi, or רַבָּה rabbah, the emerging word for woman rabbi. Invisibly connecting the Diaspora to Israel, the choice given to the North American ordinees is based on the longstanding approach used by HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinical program.Sacred Calling

The soon-to-be rabbis described their reasons for picking their titles. Some explained that they wanted to be referred to as רב rav in order to be completely equal to their male counterparts. They felt it functioned in the manner the word actor does in English. Yet, one woman passionately argued for her choice of רַבָּה rabbah, explaining that with the continued opposition to the nascent group of Orthodox women rabbis, she wanted to stand in solidarity with these colleagues who are beginning to use the title רַבָּה rabbah. It was extraordinary witnessing my new colleagues’ passionate exchange. Perhaps, the choice of Hebrew title will be taken for granted in a few years, but for now there is great excitement over the selection.

As we continued to celebrate the up-coming ordination, the conversation shifted to concerns. While recognizing how much has been accomplished in forty-four years, my new colleagues also spoke of great frustrations, including not knowing if they will be paid equally throughout their careers, if they will need to fight for appropriate family leave, and if they will have opportunities for career advancement unfettered by gender bias. A reflection s’michah document remained unequal because a decision steeped in gender bias became habit. I hope we will continue to step back and read the small print carefully in all matters that impact women in order to eradicate injustice in the rabbinate and our greater society.

Rabbi Mary Zamore is the Executive Director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, the international organization of Reform women rabbis. She contributed “What’s in a Word? Inequality in the Reform S’michah” to the recently released The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, CCAR Press.  Rabbi Zamore was recently quoted on this subject in an article by JTA.

 

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