Fifty years ago, Sally Priesand became the first publicly ordained female rabbi in the United States.
Today, thanks to Priesand and the women who followed her into the rabbinate, female rabbis are abundant and normal. Many Philadelphia-area synagogues have women leading their congregations.
Two generations on from Priesand, who was ordained in Cincinnati and served at temples in New York City and Tinton Falls, New Jersey, young women have no trouble imagining themselves as rabbis. Outside of the Orthodox tradition, they face no roadblocks to becoming rabbis, either.
Local female synagogue leaders call that progress.
But at the same time, they still struggle against the perception that men should be rabbis. In the Philadelphia area, female rabbis are often the recipients of comments about how surprising it is that women are in the rabbinate now.
“We’ve come so far, and we still have so far to go,” said Rabbi Alanna Sklover of Or Hadash: A Reconstructionist Congregation in Fort Washington.
Sklover is in her late 30s. She grew up in a Washington, D.C., temple that had a female associate rabbi.
For the Reconstructionist, a woman leading a congregation was something she saw every week.
When Sklover reached her senior year of high school, she realized that she wanted to become a rabbi. The young Jewish woman also had no doubt that she could.
“That representation mattered,” Sklover said. “And it continues to matter.”
Beth Janus, the rabbi at Holy Redeemer Lafayette, a retirement community in Philadelphia, had a similar experience as a young woman. She graduated from Hebrew Union College with a class that was 50% female.
So for Janus, becoming a rabbi was not a matter of acceptance. It was a journey of self-discovery.
In college, Janus and her Catholic best friend took one class on Christianity and another on Judaism.
Janus would express her Judaism to the chaplain who taught the Christianity class. The chaplain told her she should become a rabbi.
“When I really thought about it, it actually made sense,” Janus said. “I loved being Jewish and found a lot of meaning in being Jewish.”
But even for women of the Sklover-Janus generation, acceptance was lukewarm.
As Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy of Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, put it: “People said things they would have never said to a male rabbi.”
Boswell-Levy, 45, was ordained in 2006 and has worked at multiple synagogues. She started at Kol Emet, a Reconstructionist congregation, in 2014.
In the past, congregants called her sweetie and told her, “You look like a baby.” The rabbi occasionally got comments on outfits that she wore to lead services. Sometimes, women were making those comments.
Boswell-Levy would respond to the statements about her age by saying, “Well, I’m older than I look.” She’d answer the outfit commentary by asking, “OK, but what did you think of my sermon?” Of course, she always had to respond in the most polite tone she could muster.
“Outwardly smile,” she said.
The Kol Emet leader doesn’t get those comments much anymore. She attributes that to both her age and tenure, going on eight years in her position.
Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermann, who opened Philadelphia’s Reconstructionist Kol Tzedek in 2004, said that’s a common experience for female rabbis.
A woman will use the title rabbi to describe herself, and the other person will respond with her first name. She will talk about her ideas and see that they aren’t taken seriously. She will apply to lead a big congregation and face questions about how, inevitably, she will want to have kids in the future.
Grabelle Hermann, like Boswell-Levy, is 45. Also like Boswell-Levy, she’s been at her current synagogue, SAJ in New York City, for years. So after working hard to earn respect, the Reconstructionist rabbi no longer hears those comments too often.
“It’s still true that it’s often harder for women to feel like their authority as a rabbi is respected, especially when they are younger,” Grabelle Hermann said.
But in the generation above Grabelle Hermann and Boswell-Levy, the comments weren’t so passive-aggressive. They were just aggressive.
Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz was ordained in 1983. She spent 22 years leading Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester. She also served at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia and Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, New Jersey.
Kravitz said that when she started, reactions to female rabbis fell into two categories: open to it and vehemently against it.
“There were going to be any number of people who would tell you you couldn’t be a rabbi,” she added. “You had to deal with that.”
Female rabbis of Kravitz’s generation had no women to look up to, either. They were the ones blazing the trail.
Kravitz explained that two beliefs got her through: She felt that she was supposed to be a rabbi and that she was making history.
“The world was changing. There were enough signs that the Jewish world was ready to change,” she said. “You listened to it and you just kept going.”
Today, perceptions are less harsh but still a challenge. Nor are they the only remaining difficulty.
Rabbi Beth Kalisch of Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne was ordained in 2009 and faced “sexism from search committees” during her early job application process.
Independent Rabbi Lynnda Targen said that couples and funeral homes often prefer men to preside over weddings and funerals.
But as Grabelle Hermann explained, kids are now growing up with female rabbis. She even heard one story, from a Philadelphia family, about kids looking through a book with the stereotypical image of a rabbi: the old man with the long beard.
“They said, ‘Wait, men can be rabbis?’” Grabelle Hermann recalled. “That stereotypical image didn’t resonate with them.”
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