Women in the rabbinate

Women in the rabbinate

Forty years on and plenty of challenges remain

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Sally Priesand, front and center, is honored with an aliya at the 2012 Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Boston as she celebrates 40 years since her ordination as a rabbi, surrounded by other women rabbis. 
Rabbi Sally Priesand, front and center, is honored with an aliya at the 2012 Central Conference of American Rabbis convention in Boston as she celebrates 40 years since her ordination as a rabbi, surrounded by other women rabbis. 

Four decades-plus after New Jersey’s Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained by the Reform movement, there are over 1,000 women in the rabbinate. Their accomplishments, their impact, and the challenges that remain form the corpus of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, a volume of 46 essays and 15 personal reflections by 67 individuals (mostly clergy, mostly women) published by the Reform movement’s CCAR Press in June. 

Edited by Rabbis Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Alysa Mendelson Graf with Rabbi Renee Goldberg Edelman serving as consulting editor, it also includes a lengthy list of firsts for women rabbis (first chaplain, first rabbi married to a rabbi, first rabbi who is the daughter of two rabbis, etc.). 

The essays are intimate and academic, of the moment and historic, critical and full of gratitude. They discuss being pregnant on the bima, receiving certificates of ordination with language different from their male peers’, and rereading halachic discussions through the prism of women’s experiences. They examine the forebears who laid the groundwork for today’s women rabbis — not only renowned halachic decisors like Bruriah and Regina Jonas, the first woman who was actually called rabbi (she received private ordination in Berlin and was later deported to Terezin and murdered in Auschwitz), but also lesser-known pioneers, like several hasidic women who lived in the 18th century. 

The bulk of the essays come from Reform women rabbis, but there are also pieces from Conservative and Orthodox clergy, as well as a few men. 

The volume includes letters between Priesand — who was also the first woman ordained in the United States — and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as she was seeking admission and excerpts from a 2007 interview with her conducted by the Women’s Rabbinic Network

In an interview with NJJN, Priesand, who led the Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls for 25 years before retiring in 2006, described the book as a historical document. “I see it as a book about the accomplishments of women, the kinds of stories that are often hidden away,” she said. “Now we have these stories for the historic record.” 

In the foreword she wrote, she offers gratitude to those who accepted her request to attend rabbinical school and smoothed the way for her both in school and through her career. She also urges women to consider the papers they accumulate as historic documents and encourages them to donate such items for preservation in a historical repository. Priesand said, “If all women of every denomination give their papers to the American Jewish Archives, scholars can go to one place and do their research and find everything they need to know. 

“I often think if we had been privy to the papers of Regina Jonas a long time ago, maybe her story wouldn’t have been hidden for so long.”

Rabbi Mary Zamore of Westfield, director of the national Women’s Rabbinic Network and a contributor to the book, called the volume “phenomenal,” saying the issues raised in its pages are ones she works on at the WRN “every single day.” These include such issues as “pay equity; the advancement of women; how we think about, consciously and subconsciously, women leaders and women’s leadership…(and the tendency to diminish the entire profession because of people’s inherent bias as the liberal rabbinate becomes more feminized); maternity leave; and family leave.” 

She expressed gratitude that the volume “has been able to amplify those issues for the larger Jewish community to hear.” 

Rabbi Renee Goldberg Edelman of Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield is credited with conceiving the volume and served as consulting editor.

Speaking with NJJN on a recent morning over coffee in Millburn, Edelman recalled the beginnings of the book, born out of recognition of the vastly different paths of the women and men in her class. It was 2011, and she had just left a full-time position to spend more time with her three children. She noticed that out of the 15 women ordained with her in 1997 at HUC-JIR in New York City, one had a full-time position in the rabbinate, two worked part-time, and the rest were in other roles, whether stay-at-home moms or at nonprofit organizations. All of the 13 men were on their way to becoming senior pulpit rabbis. She recalled thinking, “Whoa. What happened here?” 

In considering how to get to the root of what was going on, she said, the book took shape. “I began to think about what the challenges are for women rabbis. I wanted [our] story to be told. I wanted every woman and man affected by having a woman rabbi to hear their stories.” 

Some of the differences were obvious to her, from her own experience. “People wouldn’t comment on what a male rabbi was wearing — but they would comment on what women rabbis or women cantors were wearing,” Edelman said. 

“A woman would never say to a male rabbi, ‘If I had a rabbi that either looked like you or was like you when I was growing up, then I would have remained religious.’” (She pointed out that in her current position at Sha’arey Shalom, where rabbi, cantor, and president are all women, such issues have not been raised.)

Edelman’s own chapter in Sacred Calling focuses on hasidic women who served as halachic decisors, or learned sages, in the 18th and 19th centuries. She wrote about them while still a student and continues to refer to them affectionately as “my girls.” These include some largely forgotten women, like Eidel, the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov; and Hannah Rachel Werbermacher, also known as the Maid of Ludmir. Edelman writes, “The incomplete accounts of their existence raise so many questions for us. In their time, were they truly seen as equal to their male counterparts? Did they possess legitimacy in the eyes of their communities?” 

A favorite chapter for several women interviewed by NJJN is the one in which Zamore examines how it happened that the language on the women’s certificates of ordination at the Reform movement’s HUC-JIR was different from the men’s, which through her advocacy has since been corrected. 

Although Zamore expressed surprised at its popularity, she said she was pleased people could see beyond the technical nature of the chapter to understand that it is “symbolic of inequalities that still exist in the rabbinate today.”

Other contributors with NJ ties include Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, Rabbi Robin Nafshi, Rabbi Ellen Jay Lewis, and Rabbi Charles Kroloff.

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