by Micaela Russell
WRJ Program and Communications Associate
When I saw an announcement for a panel discussion hosted by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) following the launch of Central Conference of American Rabbi’s (CCAR) A Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, I knew I needed to be there—both in my new role as a professional in the Reform Movement and as an active Jewish feminist. I had read Rabbi Toba Schaller’s blog about her experience as approximately the 760th woman to be ordained by HUC-JIR and what we can learn from the past 40 years.
Rabbi Sally Priesand was one of the panelists and I was shamelessly excited to meet her and hear her story. I wanted to hear what it was like for her as a pioneer. I wanted her tell us that we won, that at least in our small progressive and egalitarian bubble we have achieved our goal.
That wasn’t the take away from this panel and as far as I can tell, that wasn’t the reason the CCAR published this book. If there was no longer a battle to fight this wouldn’t still be an ongoing discussion--this would have been Rabbi Priesand telling her own story. But, this panel was made up of the essence of women in the Rabbinate and they each had a very important message for us as a community:
Rabbi Rebekah Einstein Schorr was born in 1971 and never knew a world without women rabbis. Half of her class at HUC-JIR was female. Once she was ordained she still thought the role had already been laid out for her. She pictured herself being the perfect balance of Rabbi and Mother—healthy, active, and with little stress. When she was asked to write for A Sacred Calling, she tried to decline: “'I stepped away from my calling,’ I told them, ‘I’m not right for this.’” But her story of stepping down as her community’s rabbi and stepping up as her autistic son’s mother is just as much a part of our collective journey towards gender equality.
During this conversation of the many roles we play in life, Rabbi Priesand opened up about her journey, sharing: “I made all of my decisions around what was best for the rabbinate, not what was best for me. I consciously chose my career over all else. I wanted a nursery next to my office, but that just was not possible.”
The two decades of change between Rabbi Priesand’s ordination and Rabbi Einstein Schorr’s are what have allowed for a Rabbi to put her family first. Rabbi Einstein Schorr had the freedom to make this decision in a way that the first female Rabbi did not.
Rabbi Leah Berkovitz echoed Rabbi Einstein Schorr’s experience of growing up with the expectation of women rabbis. However, in her case she did see less than equal opportunities. She was aware that when it came time to search for a new Senior Rabbi they wouldn’t even interview a woman. “They needed a ‘father figure,’” Rabbi Berkovitz recalled. The shocking thing is, she wasn’t offended. She didn’t feel the need to stand up. When she began her studies, she was approaching it as a passion project—a career that could be part time or flexible if she wanted it to be. She learned throughout her years at HUC-JIR and beyond that the expectations she had for herself were a result of history, not just a personal goal. It is not only the responsibility of those in higher positions to change their approach, but additionally, it is our responsibility as women, as aspiring leaders, to change our learned behavior and expect more than our comfort zones.
During the question and answer portion of the event, a current HUC-JIR student asked what advice the panelists had as the trans community becomes the new frontier in the Reform Movement? Rabbi Priesand explained that she didn’t start out to be a pioneer. “Be yourself and know yourself…people will always have an opinion,” she laughs, “You’ve all seen pictures—as a Rabbi in the 70s, my hair was down to here and my skirt was up to here,” she motioned.
These three women have shown us that change is happening because strong people chose not to settle for the status-quo. Rabbi Priesand looked out at the next generation of leaders and left us with one last piece of inspiration.
“The world moves forward every day,” Rabbi Priesand said, “because someone took a chance.”