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.
As you may be aware, during this past year a young boy year fought a brave battle with cancer, and lost. His name was Samuel Sommer, affectionately known as “Superman Sam,” and his Mom, Rabbi Phillis Sommer, decided to document the family’s experience through a blog as they fought their way through life. He became an internet sensation, being sent on trips, dealing with hospital visits, and facing the potential end of his life. First the blog was created, but it caught fire and not only were social media sites, but actual news sites were covering his story.
I first became aware of this when people began to change their profile picture to the icon of Superman. A comic book aficianado, I immediately took notice. Then, my staff brought something to my attention that I hadn’t yet seen. St. Baldrick’s, an organization that raises money for children’s cancer research, was having an event… for Rabbis. It is called 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and I signed up. At an annual convention for Rabbis, at least 36 rabbis will be shaving their head to raise money for these kids as well as to show support for their brave fight.
The shave will take place at the CCAR Convention in Chicago on April 1. Following the shave, I’ll share some more of my thoughts on the experience, here on the Southern & Jewish blog. For now, you can visit http://bit.ly/36rabbis to make a donation to St. Baldrick’s in memory of Samuel Sommer, and support Rabbi Kassoff, my other rabbinic colleagues, and me, as we prepare to go bald for children and a brighter, healthier future.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
The Whipping Man, by playwright Matthew Lopez, depicts an amazing historical convergence: the Civil War’s end, this nation’s long path of freedom and equality’s beginning, as well as the observance of Passover. And resting behind the curtain of promise for the things to come are the shackles of the past for the three characters of Lopez’s play: Caleb, the Jewish Confederate soldier returning home, and Simon and John, two newly-freed-men, once owned by Caleb’s family and still living in the family home.
The actors portraying these three men were at my seder experience last week, along with their director, Francine Thomas Reynolds, and two additional crew members. Francine had reached out to me and other members of the Jewish community of Jackson when New Stage Theatre announced that they would be presenting the play to the community. She was aware of the sensitivity of the play’s subject and wished to not only approach it with care but also to use it as an opportunity to engage in transformative conversations.
Some of those conversations started around our seder table at New Stage Theatre, as we interrupted the story of the Israelite’s freedom from Egypt to point out how the themes present back then were also present in the aftermath of the Civil War (depicted in the play), and – frankly – are still present with us today. These conversations, however, left us asking questions: “Who are our Pharaohs today? Who or what is holding us back from realizing our better selves? And, who is our Moses? Do we need a Moses?
These questions are some of the ones raised in this moving and thought-provoking play The Whipping Man. If you are in the Jackson area between now and March 9, I highly recommend that you come to partake of this unique, dramatic Passover experience. Certainly, you’ll leave inspired to address the challenges and answer the fundamental questions of our time!
“The Whipping Man” runs through this weekend. For more information about getting tickets, go to: www.newstagetheatre.com.