Women rabbis mark 45-year milestone

From left, Rabbis Amy Schwartzman, Mindy Portnoy and Susan Shankman speak Oct. 15 about the challenges and successes of women in the rabbinate for 45 years. (Photo by Hannah Monicken)

The year 1972 was a big one for women. Title IX prohibited sex discrimination in education. The Supreme Court upheld the right of unmarried couples to use birth control. Ms. magazine was founded.

And Sally Priesand became the first woman rabbi ordained in the United States.

To celebrate the 45 years of accomplishments since then, a group of Reform women rabbis and cantors gathered Sunday to share their stories with about 100 people at Washington Hebrew Congregation’s Julia Bindeman Suburban Center in Potomac.

Rabbi Mindy Portnoy, Temple Sinai’s rabbi emerita, learned about Priesand’s ordination in her junior year of college.


“I was considering going to law school or journalism school, but suddenly a new option opened,” she said.

The Reform movement was the first to make the rabbinate more than a man’s preserve. The Reconstructionist movement followed suit in 1974 and the Conservative movement ordained its first woman rabbi in 1985. In the Orthodox world, the first woman spiritual leader, often called a maharat, was ordained in 2009.

Some of the stories were familiar to the crowd, largely made up of older women — if not in specifics, then in tone.

Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation’s rabbi emerita, Rosalind Gold, who was ordained in 1978 and was the only woman in her class, recalled going with her classmates to the office of a member of the Knesset while they were in Jerusalem.

The politician looked at Gold, the only woman in the room — and here, there was a collective sound, an audible nod of recognition from the women in the audience — and told her she should pour everyone coffee.

The event was inspired by the book “The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” an anthology to which Portnoy, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom and Rabbi Susan Shankman of Washington Hebrew Congregation contributed, and which they plugged during the program.

The rabbis talked of the sexism they had experienced, whether blatant or subtle. During her first post, Shankman was interviewed by the local paper and asked only about her clothes and shoes. Even the most recently ordained, Rabbi Jessica Wainer, director of congregational learning at Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, said she was asked repeatedly what she was going to wear and how she was going to do her hair for an event at rabbinic school.

Schwartzman recalled being the only woman in a group of rabbis invited to discuss Jewish concerns with President George W. Bush. The president, she said, went around the table, referring to each person as rabbi.

“Finally, the president turned to me and asked, ‘Amy, what issues are on your mind?’” Schwartzman said. “I paused as I considered if I would ignore the offense of being called by my first name, when others had been called by their title. Mr. Bush figured it out pretty quickly and he acknowledged that he should have referred to me as ‘rabbi.’”

But the overwhelming theme of the day was not only to show how far women in the rabbinate have come, but to look to the future. Women continue to bring issues important to them and their communities to the forefront, the speakers said. They are modeling new forms of leadership and work-life balance.

But even as women rabbis are working to address the challenges many women face in the workplace, like equal pay and better parental leave benefits, women are also on track to outnumber men in training for the Reform rabbinate.

“I used to be able to say I knew each and every woman rabbi in the country,” Portnoy said. “Now, I go to a convention of women rabbis and there’s hundreds.”

The event ended with rousing renditions of the Shehecheyanu prayer and “Miriam’s Song,” which got the audience clapping and singing, and even moved almost a dozen women to get up, join hands and dance around the room.

Carole Gelfand called the event “both emotional and historical.”

Her friend Barbara Seiden said, “It was more powerful than I expected.”

Gelfand said she might remind her granddaughters that being a rabbi was an opportunity they could pursue.

And that’s one of the victories the rabbis at the event came back to. Said Shankman:

“The real success is that girls — and boys — can see themselves as equal partners in the future of Judaism.”

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  1. Sadly, the non-Orthodox phenomenon of female rabbis hasn’t helped to grow Judaism. The empirical data has, for many years, indicated that female rabbis are plainly correlated with decline in Jewish observance, numbers of members, synagogues, and mitzvot performed among the non-Orthodox. And just for the record, “Tikkun Olam”, as broad but vaguely defined social justice, is not a mitzvah even if some individual mitzvot happen to be considered acts of “social justice”; they are important as mitzvot, not because they are platforms and policies of liberal, leftist, socialist, progressive, or Democratic political efforts.

  2. Wrong perspective. You haven’t consider how many thousands of us who belong today to Temples with female clergy would no longer be participating in congregational Judaism without that choice. Faced with an institution that clung to its history of male leadership elite, we would have migrated our families to informal assemblies and ad hoc lay-led arrangements. For proof, look to other faiths’ denominations with male-only clergy.
    In this particular case, my Rabbi Schwartzman leads a very large congregation that just keeps growing. Come visit us and feel the vitality at work!


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