Where is this rabbi?
What is the rabbi wearing?
What is this rabbi doing?
And finally… was that rabbi you pictured a man, or a woman?
When I asked this series of questions at a Sisterhood Shabbat service a few weeks ago in Mississippi, more than half the congregants said they pictured a male rabbi. This was not surprising to me. Men filled this role for hundreds of years, and the idea of a male rabbi is part of our tradition. But it is also important for us to consider the role women have in leading our communities and embrace them as leaders. I will go ahead and tell you right now that I am especially invested in this conversation, because I plan to enroll in rabbinical school and hope to serve as a congregational rabbi.
When I spoke on this topic at Sisterhood Shabbat, I called on the congregation to empower women as leaders in the Jewish community. I was especially adamant that women rabbis receive equal pay, which is not yet a reality. These sentiments were mostly well-received, as I believe they would be in many congregations I visit. Most people have adjusted to the idea that women can be rabbis and that they should be treated with respect, but some communities are not quite sure how to do that.
In my travels across the South I have come across some interesting questions related to the role of women as rabbis. One thing I have found very interesting is the Name Question. As in, should rabbis be addressed as “Rabbi (last name)?” “Rabbi (first name)?” Just by a first name? I have met rabbis who employ each of these combinations and their reasons for doing so are compelling. Those who choose to go by their first names do so because it creates a closer relationship and allows them to do more sincere pastoral care. At the same time, calling clergy by their title and last name is a tradition which many people feel is a necessary sign of respect. I think there is an added layer of nuance for female rabbis, who might struggle to command an appropriate level of respect and who might choose to go by their last names to help with this issue.
Speaking of what to call someone, people in the communities I visit are often riveted by the question of what to call a woman rabbi’s husband in place of “rebbetzin,” the Yiddish word used for a rabbi’s wife. Some suggestions I have gathered include rebbetz-bro, rebbetz-him, rebbetz-sir, and “the luckiest man in the world.” These questions and related suggestions are funny, but they also show that the concept of a woman rabbi is still relatively fresh, and we still have some details to work out.
Being an ISJL Education Fellow has prepared me for some of the challenges I expect to face as a young female rabbi. You might be shocked to learn that teachers, directors, and congregants are not always excited to take advice or direction from a 23-year-old. I have been learning to present myself in a dynamic, professional way that convinces these people to take me seriously despite my age. I expect the strategies I have learned to cope with this issue will be useful as I go forward. Being a Fellow has also confirmed for me how much I love to help Jewish communities grow to their fullest potential and how much I do, in fact, want to be a rabbi.
When I close my eyes, I can even picture it.
 According to a study published by the CCAR, women head rabbis receive, on average, as little as 80%-93% as much pay as their male counterparts.
 Thanks to the HUC Rabbinical School in Israel class of 2007 for the first two suggestions.
In the South, we love our sports. March Madness is on the horizon and our minds are on the game! Of course, Southern-and-Jewish sporting (especially if you’re an Education Fellow) can look a little different.
In this afternoon’s game we have the number one seeded Queen Esther up against the number four seed, Hannah.
Esther’s story is probably fresh in your minds as we’ve just celebrated her holiday of Purim. As Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, tells us, the beautiful young Esther won a beauty contest to become Queen of Persia after Ahashveros kicked his first queen out of the palace. Esther then went on to save the Jews from destruction at the hands of the evil Haman. Esther was brave enough to enter the court of the king even when faced with the possibility of death for speaking to the king without being summoned. She was then clever enough to invite him to a feast and flatter him before asking the difficult question she truly wanted.
She has a lot going for her, this Esther. She has a whole book named after her, a holiday to celebrate her bravery, and we all know who every little girl wants to dress as on Purim.
The one area in which Hannah might outplay Esther is prayer – and a strong prayer player is a good skill! Esther’s account of the Purim story does not mention God at all, not even once! She appeared to be pretty pious when she fasted and prayed before going to see the king, but even then we did not have any idea of what she said or if she was really praying to God. Hannah, on the other hand, has this prayer thing down. She is acknowledged as the first Jew to employ personal prayer. Devastated by her inability to conceive, Hannah went to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem. She prayed so fervently, moving her lips but not making a sound, that Eli the High Priest thought she was drunk. Being the strong woman that she was, Hannah stood up for herself and told Eli no, she was not drunk, she was praying to God from her heart.
We see that God obviously approved of Hannah’s actions because he granted her wish and she became the mother of Samuel, the famous prophet. We never saw that kind of Godly approval for Esther. And don’t think that Hannah is left out of the important scripture. She may not have a book of Tanakh named after her, but the haftarah portion narrating her story is read on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah. We wouldn’t read the story of just anyone on this holy day!
Folks, it looks like Hannah may come from behind to win this one, after all. Sure, Esther has that fame thing going for her, but Hannah is responsible for Judaism’s acknowledgement of personal prayer. What an incredible game this has been! Prayer, subterfuge, and all at the hands of two brave and intelligent leading ladies.
Hannah, The PRAYER PLAYER, will go on to face whoever wins the showdown between Miriam and Devorah… keep tuning in, sports fans!
Okay, so it wasn’t that long ago, and it’s totally in this galaxy (although some may see the Jewish South as a “galaxy far, far away”). When I first visited congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, Texas, in August 2013, the director of their school told me that part of my work with them would be writing programing for their annual religious school February Shabbaton, or Sabbath/weekend retreat.
She also informed me there was a student who wanted to give me ideas about said Shabbaton. Zachary.
Zachary loves Star Wars, and he just could not understand why we had never made Star Wars the theme of the Shabbaton. So when I returned for my fall visit in November, Zachary and I went out to lunch to discuss all his ideas.
Over the next few months we all worked hard to put together a weekend full of Star Wars and Jewish learning. You may be familiar with the concept of The Force, but did you know there is a “Force” in Judaism, too? God gave people free will and intelligent minds to use as we please. In the same way that Jedis can use the force for good or for evil, Judaism believes that every person has a yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and a yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) that they choose to follow. In both situations, we have to learn to master our powers and use them to make the world a better place.
This was the theme of our weekend. We staged relay races and a scavenger hunt to help students learn about Jewish values and how these values lead us to use our powers for good. The whole weekend was a great success, and I never would have come up with the theme if not for Zachary. He explained all the intricate details of the Star Wars characters and showed me how their personalities and talents could teach us Jewish content. I was so impressed by how he had thought this through. This was an amazing example of the fact that students learn best when you teach them in a way they can relate: Zachary loves Star Wars, so we used that to teach him and his classmates about related Jewish concepts.
I really enjoyed the experience of working with Zachary, and not just because it made my job a little easier. It was so rewarding to see a student excited about Jewish learning for himself and his classmates. The activities of this weekend taught these students in a way they could relate to without diluting the Jewish content. I hope this can be an example I take to other communities, and I hope it can inspire you, too.
What are the interests of your students? How can those interests become an avenue for teaching Jewish content? I would love to hear from you about how you accomplish this in your schools.