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.
I was drawn to the rabbinate as a young child. Among the dolls I played with as a young child was a rabbi figure—a man, of course—who was part of a set of dolls of other professions, like doctor and firefighter. Later, I was inspired by the rabbis who raised me and felt that the synagogue was a second home. But that image of the rabbi doll stayed with me.
I was also introduced to feminism early on by a long line of rebellious women, including my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother, who were never happy with the limitations placed on them as women. Though I had a male rabbi doll, and though I had never seen a woman rabbi, it never occurred to me that women couldn’t be rabbis until 1972, when my rabbi told me about the ordination of Rabbi Sally Priesand. I was eight years old, and I still remember exactly where I was when he told me. I remember being stunned. And I think that was when I began to really think about being a rabbi.
Despite my childhood decision to be a rabbi, my road to the rabbinate was not straightforward. For a while, I pursued another love and went to art school, earning a Masters in Fine Arts. I also got married and had the first of my two children. And only then did I decide that it was finally time to apply to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Going through HUC-JIR with one and then two small children was not easy. Balancing being a decent mother with being a professional was at times excruciatingly hard. My choices felt much more limited than many of my male colleagues.
Yet, I managed to carve out a career, albeit an unusual one, in Jewish publishing, working first at URJ and then at CCAR. And I loved it. I loved making Jewish books, and contributing to the future of Judaism in a unique way. For so much of my career, I was the only woman in the room. I had to learn quickly to speak up and use my voice. As an introvert it wasn’t easy, but my experience going to a formerly all-male college had also pushed me to claim space at the table. I learned to be outspoken—it was that or get overlooked. And I learned not only to have a voice but to have an opinion and not be afraid to express it. One of the things I learned through those experiences, and through working on groundbreaking publications like The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and Mishkan HaNefesh was that it’s not just that we need more kinds of voices around the table, but that we also need a bigger table. The more voices, the more enriched we all are. No one should be made to feel like there isn’t room for them or that their perspective doesn’t matter. Don’t apologize for your voice or opinion. Don’t apologize for taking up space, and never minimize your contributions. Be courageously outspoken. Be respectfully but unapologetically loud. Listen, and insist on being listened to in return. That’s true on the bimah, in the boardroom, in the table of contents, or in the classroom.
In 2019, I was chosen to be the first woman chief executive to lead the CCAR. I had kept that rabbi doll all those years as a sort of talisman, even though I don’t look much like him. When I was thinking about this new role with the CCAR, I had thought a lot about this rabbi, what he represented, and how I might be both so different and yet connected to this historic image of a rabbi. I thought a lot about what it might be like to be the first woman in the role, to not look like the people before me.
Then an amazing thing happened. Much to my surprise, one of my colleagues gifted me with a matching female doll—created on his 3D printer—which looked like me. And when I gave my talk at Convention that year, my first one, I placed first him on the podium, and I said, “Here he is, my childhood image of a rabbi.” And then I placed her on the podium, and I said, “And here she is, a woman rabbi figure who (maybe) looks a lot like me. And here they are together, the old image of a rabbi, and the new. And here we are together—as we head into the future of the CCAR.”
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.
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
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
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.
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.” 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.” 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.
 Interview. Interview With First Female Rabbi. ABC News. 25 Nov. 1973. Television.
 Priesand, Rabbi Sally. Letter to Rabbi Alexander Schindler. 1979. Print.
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.
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.
“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?
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).
“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).
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.