Women in the Rabbinate: Equal Leaders in Our Community
by Rabbi Mary L. Zamore Recently, a friend referred to me as rabbah, the Hebrew word for woman rabbi. Strangely, I was startled. I have always referred to myself in Hebrew as rav, the Hebrew for a male rabbi. When I was ordained, the term rabbah did not exist, so for the past 15 years I have signed my name on Jewish legal documents as rav. Today, I would have started my rabbinate with an interesting choice. In fact, over the course of my career a lot of things have changed about being a woman rabbi. As a child growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I witnessed the roles and advancement of women shift constantly. Fortunately, I was given opportunities and had role models that many lacked. My grandmother was a bright, savvy woman who ran the business side of my grandfather’s drugstore; my mother worked outside of the home as a college professor; my father, a lawyer, took me at age 6 to meet the first woman judge in our county; I was encouraged to study and achieve as much as my brother; I was always told I could do whatever I wanted to do – my gender should not limit me. As much as I enjoyed traditional female-associated activities, like modern dance, poetry writing and cooking, I also engaged in male dominated interests, like mathletes, science and French horn. Even though I went to a formally all-male college which had only opened its doors to women four years before I arrived, I rarely felt defined by my gender - until I decided to become a rabbi. (Please note that the discrimination I will discuss here has not been the center of an otherwise rich and rewarding rabbinate. However, especially as a young rabbi, I did not expect gender to be part of the conversation at all.) When I went to HUC-JIR, there were extremely limited numbers of women faculty members. Today HUC-JIR has many distinguished female professors to be important role models for all students. When we applied for internships and our first jobs, there were rabbis and congregations who never seemed to hired women. Today, that list continues to shrink rapidly. Over these 15 years, I have witnessed the numbers of women in the rabbinate grow tremendously. I used know most of the faces and names of my female colleagues. Today, I thankfully do not. Back then, on a nearly weekly basis, some lay person would gape at me saying that they had never seen a woman rabbi before or insist on telling me in detail about the other one time they encountered our rare species. At conferences, older colleagues would welcome my husband as a rabbi (he is not) and assume that I was his accompanying spouse, even though our name tags declared otherwise. That, thankfully, does not happen anymore. Most importantly, our community has witnessed women rabbis achieve numerous ‘firsts’ as we broke glass ceilings, refined the Reform rabbinate, and became equal leaders in our community. Yet, more change is still needed. Over the course of my rabbinate, discrimination has greatly diminished, but not dissipated. With rare exception, today the discrimination is not blatant, as in “woman cannot be rabbis,” rather it exists in a more subtle form. I still observe discrimination in the guise of assumed limitations and roles. While many know a woman is capable of being any type of rabbi which her interests and talents support, there are plenty of people in our Jewish community, even Reform Jewish community, who still consciously or unconsciously limit women rabbis by assuming that gender defines her rabbinate. They are the ones who may praise our sweet, nurturing manner, yet fail to see strong leaders in the same rabbis. Of course, this is equally unfair to men. Both men and women deserve to be defined by their aptitudes and affinities. Personally, I simply I want to be a rabbi, not a woman rabbi - that is why I embrace the term rav. Make no mistake, I know how blessed I am to live in this era in which women have achieved so much. I enjoy unmatched opportunity because of the amazing women and men who came before me and because of those who share this current journey with me. I merely ask our community not to mistake unprecedented progress for complete success. I look forward to witnessing more progress – in the areas of pay equity, secure benefits – including family leave, opportunities for career advancement, glass ceilings breaking, and men and women who define their rabbinates freely. Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the associate rabbi at Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ. She is a past co-president of the Women’s Rabbinic Network and the editor of the Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic, CCAR Press, 2011.