Central Celebrates Women’s History Month
In honor of Women's History Month and the 50th anniversary of Sally Priesand's ordination as the first woman rabbi in the United States, we were inspired to interview our very own female clergy members who have helped pioneer and challenge the institution of the rabbinate.
Click here to learn more about our clergy.
What does it mean to you to be a woman in the Rabbinate? To be a woman in the clergy at Central?
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: Central has a long and wonderful history, over 180 years of Reform presence in America. But despite our commitment to egalitarian ideals from the start, including mixed seating and honoring women’s contributions in the congregation, I am the first female to serve as senior rabbi in our congregation’s history. I am grateful to serve in this role and even more grateful that being a woman is no longer the talking point about my leadership.
Rabbi Sarah Berman: I never thought I couldn’t be a rabbi because I was female—not ever. I have only known a world in which women can serve as clergy in the Jewish community—and that is thanks to the incredible, difficult, groundbreaking work of the generations before me. Central is an unparalleled place to be a rabbi—including because I get to work under the leadership of three incredible women (Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Executive Director Marcia Caban, and President Dr. Shonni Silverberg).
Which women inspired you when you were younger, or inspire you now? Who are your female heroes?
Rabbi Nicole Auerbach: It may be a cliché, but the woman who inspired me most when I was young was my mom. She grew up in difficult circumstances, and had me at 19, but still managed to go to college and medical school and build a successful medical practice. And now, I am still inspired by moms. More than women who are the “first” or “most” anything, I revere the unsung work of moms who are just doing their best to support the growth of their children. Being a mom myself helps me understand just how hard and meaningful this work is!
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal: I grew up at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun right here in New York City, and I had the chance to learn from a number of smart, strong, creative, female rabbis who remain my rabbis today. Rabbi Felicia Sol and Rabbi Anne Ebersman showed me what it looked like to be a woman in the rabbinate and I was inspired by them to follow in their footsteps. As a child and a teen, I was looking for role models and people who loved teaching and learning and living Jewish lives, and I found it in these wonderful rabbis. Since then, I’ve had the chance to work with some incredible rabbinic leaders, including Rabbi Sharon Brous at IKAR and our own Rabbi Buchdahl. All of my rabbis continue to inspire me every day as they connect Torah to our modern world and inspire their communities to live lives of meaning and purpose. In women’s history month, I am honored to stand in their company.
Rabbi Hilly Haber: I am inspired every day by my Central colleagues! Watching rabbis Buchdahl, Auerbach, Berman, Rubin, Davis, and Rosenthal, in action is like watching a master class in rabbinics. They are pioneers of Jewish practice and scholarship who use their prophetic voices and talents to sustain, invigorate, and reimagine American Judaism for the 21st Century.
Are there quotes or figures from the Torah or other books that you feel especially connected to as a woman in the Jewish faith? Did you need to find your way "in" to sacred texts that offer little or no female representation, or did you connect easily and intuitively? What do you say to women who have trouble "seeing" themselves in the Torah?
Rabbi Lisa Rubin: Since it is the month of celebrating Purim, I'll share a quote that has always resonated with me from the Book of Esther. When Esther is hesitant to fulfill her destiny as a savior of the Jewish people, Mordechai says to her, "“Do not imagine in your soul that you will be able to escape in the king’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position!” (Esther 4:13-14)
Here, in this ancient story, a woman—a Jewish woman—is presented with a chance to alter the future of her people. Esther's position is key, of course, but as it is said in the Mishnah, (another text I love interacting with): “Treat no one lightly and think nothing is useless, for everyone has one’s moment and everything has its place.” (Pirke Avot 4:3) Both men and women can feel empowered by this text.
I work with conversion students, and I never challenge them to see themselves in the text exactly--it is an ancient text that must be understood in its context. Jewish texts have the hallmarks of all good literature: complicated family dynamics, societal struggles, living in dimension with each other and with God. There is so much to take away from these texts as people interested in the seriousness of language and literature, as well as the human condition.
Rabbi April Davis: I feel a special connection to Ruth. Certainly, in part, because she became part of the Jewish people later in her life and that reflects my story. What really strikes me about her, though, is her compassion in staying with Naomi, her bravery in setting out for the land of Israel not knowing what she would find there, and her strength in making a life for herself and her mother-in-law in face of adversity. She is a modern role model from an ancient text.
While I find myself returning to Ruth regularly, I can still find myself in ancient texts with less representation through using my imagination. Women clearly were present and deeply influenced ancient Israelite life, even if we don’t hear about them. I imagine what it would I would have seen and heard and said had I been there. The rabbinical practice of midrash looks for ways to explain and expand the Torah. Engaging in modern, feminist midrash connects me to the Torah, the history of our people (all of them!), and my place in the modern world.
How will you celebrate or recognize Women’s History Month this month?
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: I am honored to be part of an art exhibit at HUC that celebrates 50 Female Rabbis in honor of the 50th year of women in the rabbinate. And I will be in conversation with my dear friend, Dr. Judith Rosenbaum, director of the Jewish Women’s Archive here at Central to talk about all of the progress of women in the rabbinate, their impact and where we are still not quite there yet. You can register here!
Rabbi Nicole Auerbach: In addition to some amazing programming this month about the history of women in the rabbinate (which everyone should come to!) I will celebrate this month by just being grateful that I have the opportunity to serve a community as a rabbi, which has only been possible in this country for 50 years!
What are the challenges facing women in the Rabbinate? Have you seen progress since you were ordained? What challenges remain?
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl: There are still many challenges for women in the rabbinate, most of them are reflections of the challenges still present for women in the workplace—pay inequity, biases around what leadership looks like, sexual harassment and discrimination. The congregational world is not immune to the same forces that impact women in many professional fields. But I have seen many changes and much progress since I was ordained, almost 25 years ago. The field looks different, and women are rising into positions of leadership, and changing the models of what success look like. There is still a lot of work to do, and if you are interested in hearing more, I hope you will join for the conversation I will be having with Judith and Jewish Women's Archive (JWA). You can join in person or virtually.
Rabbi Hilly Haber: The ordination of female rabbis invited generations of Jewish Americans to rethink previously held notions of Jewish identity, leadership, and authority; ushering in new opportunities for creativity, inclusion, and innovation. As we continue to innovate and find new pathways to building and sustaining Jewish communities, we must also rise to the challenge of constantly rethinking our own previously held notions of what it means to be Jewish in America today.
How can all of us–and not just women–honor and amplify women's roles in Jewish life?
Rabbi Sarah Berman: "Know where you come from in order to know where you are going.” Our traditions are full of inspiration for us. Whether we want to sing, lead prayer, teach, study, dance, cook, explore, or create—there has been a Jewish woman to inspire our path. There is nothing we have not done, and nothing we cannot do.
Rabbi Lisa Rubin: I think we can double down on bringing women's voices to Jewish life by continuing our commitment to egalitarianism. We can be purposeful about who is on our reading lists, who speaks from our bima, who sits on our panels. A tenet of Reform Judaism is the equality of all Jews. We must uphold this value of our movement.
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