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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

Categories
Rabbis

Reflections on the Rabbiner Regina Jonas Mission

I  never  knew.  I didn’t know about Regina Jonas.  That is until this summer. Regina Jonas was the first woman rabbi.  Ordained in Germany in 1935 she was a graduate of the famous Hochshule fuer die Wiesenschaft de Judentums.

I had the privilege of traveling on a special study mission arranged by our teacher and colleague Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola in his capacity as a member of the United States Commission on America’s Heritage Abroad.  This mission cosponsored by American Jewish Archives and the Jewish Women’s Archive brought together the first women rabbis ordained in each of the American denominations. We were joined by lay leaders of our Reform Movement, women colleagues and Jewish women scholars  and some of our European women colleagues for a week of travel dedicated to re-discovering the life of Rabbiner Regina Jonas.

I was so honored and deeply spiritually moved to be a part of this special trip. Traveling with our own Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by the Reform Movement, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first Conservative woman rabbi and Rabbah Sara Hurwitz the first woman ordained as part of the Open Orthodox movement and Rabbi Jackie Tabick the first woman ordained in England in 1975 by Leo Baeck College.  These pioneers brought their wisdom and experiences and together with colleagues, Rabbis Laura Geller, Dena Feingold, Lucy Dinner, Kineret Shiryon, and Alina Treiger (the first woman ordained in Germany since Jonas) and several others including Rabbi Gesa Eiderberg of Berlin and Rabbi Antje Yael Deuser of Bamberg.

I learned of Rabbiner Jonas’ courage, light, and strength. While in Berlin, we saw what was left of her letters and notes, a small stack.  We read her ordination letter written by Rabbi Max Dienemann who was the head of the Liberal Reform Rabbinical Association because she was denied ordination when her own teacher and in charge of ordination at the Hochschule,  Eduard Baneth died and his successor Hanoch Albeck refused to ordain her.  I was struck as we read the words conferring her smicha.  She was an outstanding student, writing her thesis on “Can A Woman Be a Rabbi?”.  But more than her academic credentials and her teaching abilities, she was described as “having the heart of a rabbi”.

In those dark hours leading to the Shoah, Rabbiner Jonas taught and comforted the community.  She led worship and visited hospitals and particularly cared for the elderly left behind as their children emigrated to Palestine, England or the US.  She gave lectures until she and her mother were deported to Terezin in 1942.

There she continued to serve the Jewish people.  When we as a group visited Terezin to dedicate a plaque in her memory we saw a list of the classes and sermons she gave while imprisoned there.  Classes that we all have taught: “Women in the Bible”, “Women in the Talmud”, “Shabbat and its Meaning”, “Observing Mitzvot”. She continued to bring hope and tried to use Judaism to sustain the faith of the people. According to records she worked closely with Vicktor Frankel while in Terezin.

Pioneering women rabbis on the Rabbiner Regina Jonas mission
Pioneering women rabbis on the Rabbiner Regina Jonas mission

At the dedication ceremony in the Columbarium at Terezin Sally, Sandy, Amy and Sara read Regina’s words.  Music was played by the child and grandchild of a survivor of Terezin brought us all to tears as we realized the generations lost and the generations who survived. Rabbi Eilberg chanted El Maleh Rachamim and again our group, her spiritual heirs, realized it might have been one of the first times anyone had done so for Regina Jonas.  Chills enveloped me in that space of memorial. Rabbi Zola worked so hard to make this a moment of true memorial for Regina Jonas and helped each one of us pay tribute to this holy rabbi who served with such dignity.

We went on to Prague as part of the mission.  The second spiritual highlight of this mission took place in the Spanish Synagogue in the Old Jewish Ghetto.  On Shabbat Morning, Sally and Amy led us in prayer.  In this ornate and beautiful synagogue, which reminded all of us Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati, we prayed and studied together. Looking up into the second floor was the original pipe organ reminding me of the history of liberal Judaism in this part of the world.

But most moving to me was the use of Mishkan T’filah in our worship.  To me this was a true “l’dor vador” moment.  Here we were the inheritors of Reform Judaism, born in Germany, returned despite the Shoah, despite the loss of so many, even as we rediscovered a true hero of our people, Rabbiner Regina Jonas, and we were using the siddur of our people in this holy space.  We were helping to bring alive in a space that is hardly used at all for worship, a Reform Judaism of the 21st century.  Sally led us in prayer and gave a beautiful sermon that touched each one of us.  Again I had chills to realize how far we all have come.  We stood on Regina’s shoulders and we still stand on Sally’s shoulders and the many women lay leaders who helped pave the way for all of us both men and women.

I was so moved to be a part of this mission.  I was deeply spiritually affected to honor our Jewish history this way and to ponder how each of us who as rabbis serve the Jewish people in some unique.  Each of us whether through synagogue service, organizational work, chaplaincy, writing, or teaching contributes to the sustaining Jewish life. Rabbiner Regina Jonas did it in her way and we in ours.

That is why we went to honor her life, to acknowledge her contributions, to make connections to our European colleagues, and to lift up Jewish life both in Europe and North America.

A project I wish to suggest is that we as a Conference find a way to observe her yarzeit annually.  Although we don’t know her exact date of death, she arrived in Aushwitz in October, 1944, she was another quiet heroine of our people.  Perhaps we can simply observe Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan.  In 1944 Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan was 5 days after she arrived at Aushwitz.  Cheshvan is a bittersweet month of no holy days.  And in the same way, although we mourn her death bitterly, we celebrate her historic life and the dedication as the first woman rabbi.  May her memory live as a blessing.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA and president-elect of the Conference. 

Categories
General CCAR Prayer Reform Judaism

In Praise of the Rabbinic Robe

Rabbi Ellen Lewis BlogMy black  pulpit robe has served me well in my rabbinate. It has seen me through two pregnancies and three congregations (actually six congregations if you include student biweeklies). It is older than my children.  It has traveled many miles and was once lost for 6 weeks in the unclaimed luggage room at Newark Airport.  Although it has been restitched countless times, the pocket lining continues to shred,  allowing tissues and lozenges  to make their way through the holes and  become unreachably bunched up inside the bottom seam.   I fear my old friend has become irreparably worn out.

When I took my first pulpit job in 1980,  the new decade heralded the trend of discarding the rabbinic robe.  It was too Protestant, too  archaic and too  removed for our more intimate time. I tentatively shared this information with the chair of the Rabbinic Search Committee in Dallas.   In  his memorable Texas drawl,  he said, “I can handle hiring a female rabbi but I can’t handle hiring a female rabbi who doesn’t wear a robe.”  That was the end of that discussion, and frankly, that was fine with me.

Wearing a robe meant not having to think about what to wear on the pulpit. That fact  alone would have offered salvation to  any woman  living  in Dallas at the time.  During my five years there, I  felt perpetually and inevitably underdressed.  Dallas in the 80’s was the city of the accessory.  My congregants shopped at Neiman Marcus (Stanley Marcus’ mother had been a devoted member of the congregation) before the store  moved outside the borders of Texas. Even the saleswomen were temple members, making shopping that much more of a complicated procedure.

So the robe thankfully removed me from the congregational social competition. But more than that, it allowed the congregation to see me as a rabbi, not as a woman rabbi.  The robe unified the three rabbis (two older men and I) as we stood on the pulpit.  Congregants could imbue us with whatever emotional and spiritual transferences their individual psyches required.  Yes, they could still see my shoes (you could write a book about how people comment on the shoes worn by female rabbis and cantors) but they were too polite in that southern way to comment to me directly.  One time, a distant aunt visited Dallas and came to Shabbat services.  In the receiving line, she gave me a long look and observed, “Your cousin wears a robe, too, but his is white with gold trim.” That was how I found out that  my cousin had moved to the Himalayas and become a serious Buddhist.

The robe issue might seem insignificant given the challenges we face in our profession, but it is symbolic  of other  gender-related issues in the rabbinate. Those of us who were ordained in the early days of women in the rabbinate had high hopes that our charting the way would relieve our younger female colleagues from having to fight the same battles.  We have become increasingly aware that, when it comes to the rabbinate, issues of gender run deeper than we had first thought. Eliminating the rabbinic robe might have resolved some very real theological issues but has also created new ones.

During these last few years of patching my black pulpit robe, I vowed that I would not buy a new one.  If I got to that point, I knew I would have to revisit the choice of whether to wear a robe at all.  And so my robe will retire from the pulpit along with me this June 30. It will be just a pulpit retirement for me, not a full retirement. But for my robe, it will mean the end of a long and satisfying career.

Rabbi Ellen Lewis (www.rabbiellenlewis.com) has a particular interest in the integration of religious and psychoanalytical concepts and has worked at developing models of clinical supervision for rabbis, cantors, and other religious professionals.  In her private practice, she works with rabbis and cantors in therapy and supervision.  After her ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1980, she served congregations in Dallas, Texas, and Summit, New Jersey, where she was named Rabbi Honorata.  Since 1994, she has been the Rabbi of the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ (www.jcnwj.org).  

Rabbi Lewis is also a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey and in New York City. She received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies (www.cmps.edu) and at present serves on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis (www.acapnj.org).  She is a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (www.aapc.org). She can be reached via email at rabbiellenlewis@rabbiellenlewis.com or in her NJ office 908 766 7586.