Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I began rabbinical school in 1994, nine years after the Conservative Movement ordained Amy Eilberg in 1985. I was young idealistic and naïve. I entered school thinking that the battles had been won, that women were seen as equals as rabbis and leaders in the Jewish community. At 22 years old, nine years of women in the Conservative rabbinate sounded like a long time. Then, I started school. Reality slapped me in the face… hard.
Nine years is the blink of the eye when dealing with a several thousand year old tradition. Even the 22 years that the Reform Movement had been ordaining women at that time was a short blip on the screen. From day one, it was made clear to me that my life as a rabbi would be different as a woman. My first day at school, I was told by a dean that more important than anything I learned in rabbinical school would be to get married and have babies. When applying for a job at the local UJA Federation, I was told by the older male interviewer that I should drop out of rabbinical school and get a degree in Jewish education instead since, of course, once I had children I would want to work part time and be home to be a good mother. My style of dress and my looks were commented on regularly. When I started to stand up in front of groups as a service leader or teacher, somehow I became hyper-sexualized. Men (and some women) found it appropriate to comment on how beautiful I looked, and touch me in inappropriate ways. That first year in rabbinical school, I learned that sexism in all its forms was alive and well in contemporary America.
The fact that I am female continues to color how people view me as a rabbi and a leader. I have had to learn to work with this reality. Sixteen years into my rabbinate I am still working on it. There is no getting over “the female factor.” I have been passed over for jobs because of it. I have been underestimated and misunderstood. I simply don’t look like what a leader is “supposed” to look like.
Whatever you may think of Hillary Clinton, she is up against the same prejudices. Her nomination is historic because for the first time it legitimizes a female body, a body with curves that can lead a country as great as the United States. Some people will not vote for her because this is the case. The visual of a woman in that role is just too much for them.
However, no matter what happens in this election, a glass ceiling has been shattered. For those who dismiss her because she is a woman, thousands, if not millions of others will see female leadership in a new light. Just as TV shows like “Will and Grace” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” introduced Americans to the visual of gay relationships, and President Obama gave America a new visual of the African-American male, so too will Hillary open the door to millions experiencing women’s leadership in a new way.
My daughter is growing up in a country where she will see African Americans and women as leaders. She and her peers will not even think to question this reality. Though it has taken us a long time to get here, progress is being made. I pray that she never encounters the sexism I and other women have endured. I pray that she will get to create her path in life without people commenting on her looks and clothes, without people questioning her intelligence and ability to lead, without her being underestimated because she is female.
When speaking about Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep said, “To be the first female anything you need both grit and grace.” She is 100 percent correct. I have had to develop both of these virtues to be successful as a Jewish leader. May every girl and woman in America own their power and continue to show the world what they are made of. No one’s worth should be judged solely on the shape their body takes.