Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Having One's Rabbinate Thrust Upon You

Sean and I have long discussed how interesting it would be to have both of us write or speak on the same topic. Anyone who's seen one of us teach with the other in the room will know how we tend to interrupt each other. We generally agree on topics, but come to them from very different points of view.  In the end we decided explore how our individual rabbinates have evolved over our almost twenty years out of the Seminary. After you enjoy this, go to Sean's Blog for his point of view.

There's a story told around the Seminary about a conversation that occurred in an elevator with one of the Seminary's professors. There was once a rabbinical student who was not the top of his class. He wasn't even the middle. It's not that he didn't have the skills. He was somewhat of a goof-off, and he squeaked by. Every day this student would ride the Brush elevator with this professor. They never spoke. (While greatly respected, he was also a object of awe by most students.) In his final year, as graduation approached, this student suddenly realized he would soon bear the title of Rabbi and the responsibility that goes with it. Plucking up his courage in the elevator one day, the student fearfully asked, "Professor, I'm about to graduate. My congregants will look to me to have the answers. Why should they listen to me?" The professor, pulling himself up straight to his full (very short) height, stared down this goof-off off a student, and said, "BECAUSE YOU'RE THE RABBI!"

Whether this ever occurred or not, this is a story that resonates with every rabbi-to-be. Although, like with any profession, a piece of paper gives us the title, it's years of experience that really do make the difference. We all come out of school filled with facts, but little real wisdom. Of course, at times the rabbinate is thrust upon us. What makes us real rabbis is what we do in those moments.

My first moment came in my first year as a rabbi. After graduation, my home congregation had honoured me at the annual JTS fundraiser. I still have the tzedakah box they gave me. It's in my living room, next to the couch. I was humbled by the honour, thinking, "They could have had a great professor, but they chose me. Wow." That wasn't the moment. The moment came six months later. I was at a Torah Fund talk being done by a friend, a classmate of Sean's. The room was filled with older women, three JTS students, and one rabbi- me. About half-way through the program a woman said, "I have a question for the lady rabbi." Lady rabbi, I was the ONLY rabbi. It was a moment of realization that it wasn't enough to have a diploma. I had to become RABBI Jennifer Gorman.

Another moment came 5 years later. I had been hired as the rabbi of a day school. The president of the school was uncomfortable with the idea of a woman rabbi. He had the job title changed, so I became a resource instead of the Rabbi in Residence. But it didn't end there. At curriculum night he introduced the faculty, support staff, and administration. Somehow he forgot to introduce me. When a question came up that should have been directed to me, he directed it to an administrator. I jumped in, introducing myself and answering the question. The next day, when he was in the school, I asked to speak with him. Asking him to follow me to my office, I walked around my desk, speaking from my place of power. I told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had slighted and embarrassed me the previous night, and that I would not stand for such disrespect again. By the time he left my office I was shaking, but I never let him see me sweat. That was the day I learned, like Esther in the Megillah, to wear my rabbinate as a garment, visible to the world.

A third moment was our move to Toronto. It was a wonderful choice to come here, but I was the first female Conservative rabbi in Ontario and east. Once again I was breaking down doors. I was changing attitudes towards what is traditional Conservative Judaism. Here I have been confronted with both old and new issues. I was again the lady rabbi. I was a the only woman in our RA region, and served (for a longer than normal term) as its president. I was invited to speak in congregations where I cannot even open the ark. I have been challenged by practices where I am excluded, practices that were supposed regional policy, but were never put in writing.

I never wanted to be the stand on a soapbox reformer. And yet, it was thrust upon me. It's only now, in hindsight, that I have realized that, by just being true to myself I, not so much broke through, but calmly opened doors and removed walls. Without ever meaning to I have lived a life of firsts.
  • I was the first Shabbat morning bat mitzvah at my synagogue. (Actually it was a whole weekend, with a 'traditional' Friday night bat mitzvah and a repeat of the haftarah on Shabbat.) It took 20 years before I had an aliyah at Merrick Jewish Centre. My first was after my daughter was born.
  • I was the first woman at my synagogue and in my USY region to decide to wear tallit and tefillin.  I later found out that one family of four daughters discussed me regularly (and positively) at their Shabbat table. One Shabbat morning a little boy, maybe 4 years old, looked up at me in my tallit, and said, "You're not a boy!" His father was mortified. I, however, just smiled; knelt down, and confirmed his statement. "No, I'm not a boy. Boys have to wear tallitot, but girls are allowed to wear them too." He smiled, and skipped away. Now, Merrick Jewish Centre is filled with women wearing tallitot. 
  • I joined a rabbinical school class that was 1/4 women. In two years this ratio would rise to 1:2. Even in that group I was different. I chose the separate seating minyan in the Stein Chapel at JTS, challenging the idea of where women rabbis belonged and how women rabbis would act.
  • While not the first, Sean & I were one of the early rabbinic couples. Going into the military, I challenged the image of what a chaplain's wife should be. I was clergy in my own right; educated more than most, and available to step in when needed.
  • I was the first woman rabbi to serve as Rabbi in Residence at the Brandeis School on Long Island and the first to teach at USDS in Toronto, giving students and faculty their first introduction to the idea that women can be rabbis and wear tallit and tefillin. 
  • I was the first Conservative woman rabbi in Ontario, to work at a Conservative synagogue in eastern Canada, and to speak at synagogues in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and London, opening people's eyes and minds to the idea that women can be traditional, halakhic, and rabbis.
  • I was the first woman to serve on the Executive of the Canadian Region of the Rabbinical Assembly.
  • While not the first, I am one of the few women at Ramah and in USY who wear tallit and tefillin. I am one of the rabbis who recites Kaddish for the camp. I am the only woman rabbi so many of these kids will ever see, but I open doors by just being there.
There are also the moments that hurt.
  • That first statement, "I have a question for the lady rabbi." Was "lady rabbi" somehow different than rabbi. After all, I was the only rabbi in the room. It's funny, but really not.
  • After answering a question for a congregant, as I turned away he said, "She's very good. It's a shame she's a woman. She'd make a great rabbi." I'd been a rabbi for seven years at that time.
  • There was the congregation which I visited that stressed to me "We're fully egalitarian," but then added "We'd never hire a woman rabbi." Oddly, the person was trying to stress, with pride, their so-called equal stance. Why even tell me that? I wasn't looking for a job.
  • After confronting the school president about slighting me, my job was eliminated for the next year. It was the only legal way they could fire me. They had no cause. I still have the letters from parents and school board members urging me to sue after they'd heard him say, "We're only keeping Rabbi Gorman until we can hire a male rabbi."
And there are moments of pride.
  • At a conference in honor of the 20th anniversary of Conservative Women's Ordination, I lunched with two women, one older and one younger. The older colleague had been a teacher of the younger. The younger spoke of how she'd never have gone into the rabbinate if it hadn't been for the other as a role model. In that moment I realized the importance of simple presence.
  • There was the moment a colleague made reference to women rabbis as a passing fad. It was the only time I ever felt slighted by a colleague. Since he wasn't someone I fully respect, it was easy to shrug off. The real embarrassment came from my other colleagues around the table who were horrified. I thank them to this day.
  • At my final convention while working for Eastern Canadian Region of USY, my USYers and my staff presented me with gifts and speeches. The gifts ranged from practical to silly. The speeches, however, spoke to how important my presence had been in opening their hearts, their eyes, and their minds to Judaism and to the idea of women as rabbis. The most touching came from one of my most right-wing USYers. He's studying to be a teacher and an Orthodox rabbi, but I will always be one of his rabbis. I couldn't ask for a better legacy than that.
Each rabbi's rabbinate takes on a life of its own. It's rarely what you expect when you leave seminary. I expected to be a hospital chaplain. Instead I've touched so many different areas, and, through that, so many more people than I'd ever have thought. It's amazing to be part of a moment that makes you that individual's rabbi. Once there, you're there forever, even if you never see him/her again. I'm in a good place. I can look forward to many more years in the rabbinate, but I am also at an age where I an confident in who I am, where I've been, and where I am now. I have nothing to prove to anyone. That in itself is satisfying.