I was in seventh grade the first time I realized I could pursue a life as a rabbi. A woman rabbi had come to my public school to speak on Holocaust Remembrance Day. I could already see myself in her; I realized that a “rabbi” didn’t automatically mean a “man,” that the rabbinate could one day be in my personal grasp.
Since that day, numerous women rabbis have inspired me, serving as role models accessible to me. With this month marking 30 years since the Conservative movement first ordained and accepted women into its rabbinate, I’ve been thinking a lot about how those pioneering women rabbis paved a path for my and future generations of women rabbis. No longer do we have to have conversations of what a woman rabbi looks like and which religious obligations and privileges that applied to men also apply to women.
Instead, we have different conversations—the kinds that women in the workplace have everywhere, about balancing work and family life, about juggling responsibilities and, for many us whose spouses and partners also have public lives, what it means to be in such a partnership. And as in the corporate world, it means conversations about the difficulty of women getting senior rabbinic positions and lagging behind in pay. Yet, these women also paved a path as well for male rabbis to have conversations about their own work-life balance.
As I look at the women being honored this month by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and its Jewish Theological Seminary in recognition of their 30 years in the movement’s rabbinate, I am truly appreciative of the doors they pushed open.
Those doors weren’t easy to unlock. JTS (the movement’s flagship seminary) denied a woman entry to its rabbinical school in 1973, setting in motion more than a decade of study, resolutions, tabled motions and rallies. In 1980, the Rabbinical Assembly (the movement’s rabbinic body) passed a resolution in favor of the ordination of women as rabbis, and in 1983, JTS finally voted to admit women to its rabbinical school. The first women were ordained in 1985.
As Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the RA’s executive director, has said, these women “are an inspiration for the rest of the Conservative movement and for American Jewry as a whole.”
Among those first Conservative women rabbis being honored this month are four with close ties to the Washington community:
Rabbi Julie Gordon, the director of education at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, and the first woman to lead a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn, the Park Slope Congregation;
Rabbi Jan Kaufman, the retired director of special services for the Rabbinical Assembly who early in her career held numerous positions in Greater D.C., including as a teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, librarian at Adas Israel Congregation in D.C., and director of the D.C. Jewish Studies Center;
Rabbi Susan Grossman, religious leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia since 1997, one of the editors of the Conservative movement’s Etz Hayim and Torah Commentary, and co-editor of the anthology “Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue”; and
Rabbi Avis Miller, rabbi emerita of Adas Israel Congregation, who founded the Open Door Foundation, a nonprofit to reach out to unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews, as well as non-Jews who are part of Jewish families or have Jewish ancestry.
I first met Avis Miller—a legend to me—five years ago when my husband and I moved down to D.C. At the time, I was working at Hillel International, had young children and was unsure if I wanted to go back to a pulpit position. She encouraged me, telling me, “You can have it all. You just can’t have it all at the same time.”
Her words of wisdom influenced me in accepting my current job as one of the rabbis at Adas Israel. And, that’s the thing about all of these women. They’ve all carved out places for themselves in the rabbinate, proving that women can be just as effective as men in the pulpit and in numerous other areas.
And, along the way, they made sure, as Julie Gordon has put it, to “be supportive of female colleagues. We need each other and can offer a great degree of understanding based on our shared experiences.”
I stand on the shoulders of these women, and for that, I am truly grateful.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, oversees all adult education at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC. She co-created three nationally recognized projects now operating out of Adas Israel — [email protected] http://adasisrael.org/yp (a community of Jewish Young Professionals [re]discovering their Jewish identities through programs, services, and events), MakomDC http://adasisrael.org/makomdc (a 21st century learning center offering dynamic programming and study around a variety of secular and religious topics), and the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington http://adasisrael.org/jmcw (a Center dedicated to harnessing Jewish Mindfulness and contemplative practices). Under Rabbi’s Holtzblatt’s loving direction, the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington has now been nationally endorsed as one of America’s Top 82 Innovative Jewish Organizations, via the coveted Slingshot Guide for Jewish Innovation.