It was 1979. There had been a few women ordained as rabbis by the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, but the Conservative Movement was not ready to consider ordaining women. The first women who had become rabbis were serving as assistant rabbis or co-rabbis or academics, but none were senior rabbis or the sole rabbi in a congregation. We all knew each other, and we tried to meet regularly to give each other support—support that we really needed.
It was a time of excitement and promise. We were ready to take on the world: to change the Jewish community into an even more compassionate, loving, accepting one. We were ready to write new rituals for girls and women, to include images of women in leadership positions in new texts and children’s books. We were deeply aware of how new our place in the Jewish world was and how fragile. So many people were not ready to take us seriously, and we were committed to changing their view. But we had no real idea how to make the kind of difference we wanted to make. We had no mentors and no examples of women who had come before us and served as rabbis in their communities. We felt excited, but also vulnerable and a little shaky; how would we know that we were making the kind of difference that we wanted to make? Were we ready to stand up to the Jewish community that was not always so welcoming of us and of the kinds of changes we wanted to make?
We often found ourselves engaged in a debate: Would the fact of ordaining women as rabbis actually change the Jewish world, or would it be possible for us to work as rabbis and, despite our deepest desires, leave the Jewish community essentially unchanged? Some of us were sure that the very fact of having women as rabbis would make a difference. Others of us were not so certain. I doubted that simply ordaining women would be nearly enough. The very nature of the Jewish community needed so much work in order to be the open, fully welcoming place we envisioned. Just because there were now women rabbis, there wouldn’t necessarily be anything that really challenged the status quo.
And there was so much sexism! There were so many casual comments made that felt demeaning and sometimes harassing. Men commented, “I’ve never hugged a rabbi before!” as they reached out for a full body hug; “I’ve never danced with a rabbi before!” as they grabbed us for slow dances at a wedding party; “You look awfully pretty for a rabbi!”; “I can imagine a woman leading anything, but I think I’d be more comfortable with a male rabbi for a funeral. How could a woman do that for us?”; “What should we call the husband of a rabbi? Ha, ha, ha!”; “I’d like to kiss you good Shabbes as if you were a woman, not just a rabbi,” as they smiled and reached out for a kiss; “Would you like to contribute a recipe to the Sisterhood cookbook?” And on and on.
And there were so many congregations that weren’t sure that they could even hire a woman. After all, how would a woman assume the authority that an effective rabbi needed to have? Communities that had never given halakhah, Jewish law, a single thought were suddenly jumping on questions of halakhah concerning service leadership or serving as a witness. As Reconstructionists, we had assumed that none of this would be an issue, but when it came to employment, even in our movement, there were remnants of sexism and insecurity about hiring women in prominent positions. There were so few women rabbis that each one stood out. Every congregation felt that they were on display; what they did about hiring would be on display to the entire world.
I had long known that I wanted to be a congregational rabbi. I loved everything about pulpit work: the life-cycle rituals, the service leading, the holiday programming, the connections with people of all ages, the pastoral counseling, the deep community involvement. It all sounded perfect! I had grown up in a strong, loving Jewish community, and I wanted to serve one that could give others the deep sense of belonging and meaning that I had gotten. When I was becoming a bat mitzvah at age 13, my rabbi asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I looked at him and thought, “I want to do exactly what you do!” Knowing that it would be impossible for me, a girl, to ever become a rabbi, I answered, “I want to be a Hebrew-school teacher.” I felt as if I was lying to him and to myself. So when I became a rabbi, I felt as if I was finally living my truth—a truth that I had not even been able to express to myself.
And yet, in my senior year at RRC, while I was figuring out what it would mean for me to work as a rabbi in the world, I was also struggling with the process of coming out as a lesbian. Needless to say, there were no rabbinical schools that were ready to ordain an “out” lesbian. At RRC, a potential applicant who was openly gay had just been advised that he shouldn’t bother applying since the school wasn’t ready to consider his possible admission. Even the student body was not ready to step up as a whole to demand that there be an admission policy that allowed gay and lesbian students to be admitted (not even considering all lgbtqi people, just gay and lesbian). The only synagogues that would employ a lesbian rabbi were gay and lesbian congregations, and there were so few of them. I couldn’t be open, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t internally in turmoil about the possibilities for my future that seemed to be rapidly closing off.
I was also in the midst of a divorce from my then husband. Even hiring a divorced woman seemed a little risky for some communities. One congregation at which I interviewed was concerned about my acceptance in their community as a divorced woman. How would the other women feel about my being there? Would I be seen as a threat to their marriages? Before they could consider hiring me as their rabbi, they needed to determine that my status as “divorcee” did not make me dangerous.
As I reached the final semester of my rabbinic education, I watched as one by one, my male colleagues found positions in the areas of the rabbinate of their choosing: congregation, education, academia. I was the only woman in my class looking for a rabbinic position; the only other woman had moved to Israel for her final year of school and was planning to stay there. She knew that in Israel, she could not find rabbinic work, but she was marrying an Israeli man, and was prepared to figure out whatever way she could to use her skills and knowledge well. I was looking for a congregation and waiting to see what might happen.
Late in the spring, I was offered a congregational position at a Reconstructionist synagogue in Maryland. Maryland is not very far from Philadelphia, but it felt as if it was an enormous distance. I was involved with a woman in Philadelphia, had just finalized my divorce and couldn’t decide what it would mean for me to leave the city I had called home for my entire life. After all, 1979 was pre-Internet time, and I had so many connections with people in the Philadelphia area that I was uncertain I could maintain well if I lived in Maryland. I still remember how hard it was to make the decision about that job! I called and told them that I wouldn’t be taking it. Then I called back and asked for another day to debate. Then I called and turned it down again. I needed the groundedness of my home city, my family, the person I was involved with. I wasn’t ready to leave, even if it was only for Maryland!
When June came and the RRC graduation arrived, I was now the only person in my class who had wanted a rabbinic position and didn’t have one. I was waiting for Beth Israel of Coatesville, a Conservative synagogue in a town about 40 miles outside Philadelphia, to let me know if they were interested in hiring me. We had had solid interviews; I had gone to Beth Israel for a full weekend of service leading and teaching, and I knew that we would be good for each other. They simply couldn’t decide. Was hiring a woman—one who could not be ordained in their own congregation’s movement—be OK? Would they somehow lose standing in the Jewish world?
Finally, two weeks after graduation, Beth Israel called and offered me the position as their rabbi. Apparently, the debate that had taken them so long was about both my being a woman and a divorced one as well. But I had the skills and the enthusiasm they were looking for to move their community forward, so they were ready to take the chance. And then, the word spread.
Someone sent a press release to the JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, saying that a woman had been hired as the sole rabbi of a Conservative congregation. That was news. There hadn’t been women in any sole rabbinic positions in the United States before, and the news spread like wildfire. The New York Times put an article about me with a photo they took as I was fitted for my robe (my congregation required their rabbi to wear a robe to lead High Holy Day services and funerals) on the front page. I was a guest on “Good Morning America,” a national television show. I was interviewed countless times for radio programs, local newspapers and magazines. People sent me clippings of the news story about my new job in countless languages from newspapers around the world. I finally stopped accepting new interviews since I needed to get to work, and there was so little time left to do what my new position warranted.
The time was exciting, and my 15 minutes of fame felt more like an hour! But there was another side. Newspapers that promised not to reveal anything personal about me and my ex-husband printed details about him and his family. Radio shows turned into diatribes against women in religious leadership. And I felt as if I had lost control of the publicity. When magazines that existed just to search for hidden dirt on people began to call me for interviews, I stopped the process as completely as I could and tried to get to work. But part of the “other side” of all this publicity was my coming to terms with myself as a lesbian and my fear that one of the newspapers or magazines would find out about me. If they did, I knew that this would all be lost. I would have no rabbinate and no job and, it seemed at the time, no future. I was worried and anxious to get past the publicity into the day-to-day life of a rabbi. I was so grateful when all of this ended and I could start to work.
Starting work as the new “woman rabbi” in town was complicated as well. Everything I did felt as if it was under a microscope. I sat on the floor with the children in Hebrew school (“Our male rabbi would never do that!”); I led a discussion in services one night instead of giving a sermon (“I can’t imagine a man doing that!!”); I wore pants to build a booth for the synagogue Purim carnival (“Why does she think she can dress like that!?”); I introduced the idea of using female God language at one service (“There’s nothing wrong with the way things were! How dare she!”); I gave a High Holiday talk that included some personal stories (“Only a woman would do that! Why is it necessary?”)
But with all the tight scrutiny, I was also immediately and fully embraced. The community as a whole felt deep pride that they had the courage to hire a woman. And, while there were certainly those who were uncertain that I would be able to lead a funeral like a man or lead a hull Yom Kippur day of services, when the congregation saw that I could, they began to relax and accept that I really was their rabbi. The people of Beth Israel and I genuinely loved each other, and the six years that I spent in Coatesville were fulfilling and satisfying for all of us.
The aspect of life that was never embraced or even dealt with openly was my being a lesbian. And the entire time that I served as the rabbi of Beth Israel, there was something missing from my life. There was another part of me that was always hidden, and that I was always worried would be revealed. Fortunately, there was no more international press documenting my work and my life.
From the 1980s on, life for women in the rabbinate shifted. Many more women were accepted into rabbinical school, and it no longer felt as if we were quite so alone. But I have watched as the challenges that were once faced by women in the rabbinate have shifted. Every time someone who has not been in the rabbinate is ordained, the fear and discrimination from the Jewish community and beyond it arise again. Queer rabbis and rabbis of color are often marginalized and tokenized in ways that feels so familiar, but that also reflect the unique places of queer people and people of color in our society. As more new ground is broken, there is so clearly more work for us to do together.
Now, when I sit at RRC and watch the range of our students—men, women and non-binary students, lgbtqia students alongside heterosexual and cisgender students, and some students of color—I feel as if 1979 was a very long time ago. It feels like another world, and I feel grateful to have done some of the work that made room for today’s variety of students to be studying for the rabbinate.