Letter from Jerusalem: Listening on the next generation of Conservative women rabbis

“Get yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.” – Pirkei Avot 1:6

Blessed are You, God, who clothes the naked. My mother’s closet is full of clothing from various eras of her life. Suits hang in every jewel-tone from decades of shul-going. She has even saved her Bat Mitzvah dress, yellowed lace with patches of pastel. When I was younger, I used to love playing dress-up in her closet, awaiting the day I would grow into her clothes.

Among the diverse discussion topics when a group of women rabbinical students gathered in Jerusalem living rooms this past year was the contents of our own closets: how we see ourselves and how we are seen; the ways we choose to cover and uncover; the garments we have inherited and those we have taken upon ourselves. My hevruta (study partner), Kerrith Solomon, and I convened this group of women from the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler school so we could talk with our peers about things we have not yet had safe space to explore within our schooling, reclaiming and exploring our identities as women on our paths toward the rabbinate in the Conservative Movement. 

For my first two years in rabbinical school, I felt pressure to be both a Jewish man and a Jewish woman. I accepted the full gamut of ritual obligation, but never had any conversation around integrating my gender identity into the role of rabbi. I fastened kippot to my hair and didn’t quite feel at home. When a male colleague argued that all female students should be obligated to wear kippot, my reflex was to guard my hair from the demands of others, to preserve it as a domain for self-expression. I found myself choosing to wear my most feminine garb to class and spending time in front of the mirror with a mascara wand. Encountering older layers of text from the tradition I thought I was in love with, I experienced a sense of loss and lack that I didn’t know how to name. A committed feminist, I felt alienated and disconnected from so-called holy sources that related to women as objects and second-class citizens. Many days, I felt like a spinning head, detached from my body. Often, I would end up with the mascara as a smudged trail down my cheeks.

Some of the women in our group wear kippot, others choose not to cover their hair. Still others have dipped into Jerusalem’s colorful market of headscarves and hats of all shapes and sizes. Some of us worry about how Conservative congregations might react to a rabbi in a fancy hat on the bimah. Two female classmates who wear kippot cover the covering with a scarf or beret when venturing into public spaces in Jerusalem.

Walking through Jerusalem, I often feel as though everyone is in costume or uniform. We all feel hyperaware of how what we wear here conveys messages about who we are. When I arrived in Israel, newly engaged, I bought a book with instructions for tying intricate designs with headscarves. Some days, I have wrapped my hair in flowery cloths, perhaps for practice or perhaps to entertain my curiosity, noticing if people treat me differently when I code into my outfit a message of being off-limits. Though my mother might have palpitations if she saw me, there is something sacred to me in making space for ritual role experimentation.

As I brace myself to enter marriage this summer, I am particularly grateful for one open conversation we had in the group around roles and responsibilities at home, telling the stories of the models we knew growing up. One classmate shared how her mother pours her father’s cereal every morning. Another spoke of her parents’ emphasis on performing chores of choice, having themselves been raised with servants in South Africa. Where will we carry on family traditions and where will we create practices of our own?

This year, meeting as a group with our teacher Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, we have looked at halakhic and traditional texts and examined our own emotions around niddah, mikveh and kissui rosh (head covering). We have spoken about boundary issues, rereading the laws of “yihud,” in the Shulkhan Arukh (a 16th century authoritative Jewish legal anthology), which regulate men and women spending time alone together.

Some women were comforted to find a place in the traditional sources that supports our right to say, “These are my boundaries.” I saw it as an opening for discussion of sexual tension and transference that may arise in pastoral work and steps we can take to establish healthy contours for relationships in our professional lives. We encounter these conventional codes for gender relations with awareness that in our group and communities, people have a range of identities in regards to sexual orientation and differing comfort levels with intimacy of various sorts.

What does it mean to pick up and dust off things the Conservative Movement has stored away in corners, such as hair-covering, or niddah (the laws mandating, in their most stringent interpretation, no physical contact at all between husband and wife during her period and for seven days after) that I have generally associated with Orthodoxy and with the perpetuation of gender hierarchy? Why are we reaching for these rituals? Can we call our search for meaning feminist, or is it something else?

One participant spoke of her commitment to observing the laws set out by Jewish tradition as well as the need to attribute new meanings to Halakhah to make it relevant to our lives. “When the tradition says go to mikveh, I go. I find joy in fulfilling the mitzvah. I find it meaningful to have time apart from my partner to reinvest in my self. I find immersion in the water relaxing. Once, a mikveh attendant told me that if you pray in the mikveh, God will hear your prayers more. I have made it a time for spontaneous prayer, to acknowledge what is happening in my life, to ask God for strength and healing. I feel like it is the closest thing I have to a “Holy of Holies,” an intimate and quiet space, alone with God.”

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“God, open my lips and my mouth will sing your praise”

I have a recurring dream in which my teeth fall out into my hand. I have spent the past few years in rabbinical school spiritually sore, as if my soul has been teething; as if I have been waiting for something to break through, to catch the cries and to form them into words. In this group, I feel finally able to speak, to articulate, to give language to an intensive search effort for who I might be, as a rabbi and as a person.

One Wednesday evening, over lentil stew, we spent time on questions of feeling authentic, about perceptions of what a rabbi “looks like,” about dreams of becoming pregnant or raising families and concerns about how that might impact our careers.

“How big do you want to be?” Aderet Okon Drucker was asked by a mentoring rabbi when she sought advice about which internships and jobs to pursue as she begins her rabbinic career.

“How big do you want to be?” What does it mean to want to be big? What sacrifices will we have to make in order to make room for our influence to grow? Are we allowed to not want to be big? We discovered we were annoyed with the go-to definition of “big” and the culture of comparing congregation size–A, B, C, D–that we have heard permeates rabbis’ gatherings. I joked that mine would be a Double D, if only there were a correlation between shul size and bra size.

One woman redefined big as an integrated identity that allows you to be your many selves as a rabbi, partner, parent, friend, daughter and person. Being big would mean having a sense of self that could hold and weave together many facets of life beyond the professional realm.

We spoke of hopes that our generation can redefine rabbinic identity in this way, taking some of the pressure off of the expectations of unyielding self-sacrifice placed on the rabbi. Our vision of the rabbinate would involve a makeover of communal expectations, in which it would be acceptable and encouraged for clergy to have time and life outside of the pulpit/office etc. We see benefit in this for rabbis-to-be and rabbis-that-are of all genders.

If this is what it means to be big, I would like to super-size my rabbinate.

-Annie Lewis

The women are now working on a photography project to expand the image of what a rabbi looks like. Stay tuned here for more stories!

2 comments on “Letter from Jerusalem: Listening on the next generation of Conservative women rabbis

  1. Gray on

    I just wish the world would stop relagating women into what they think we should be. I’m not sure why anyone feels it necessary to put on make-up, scarves, hijabs, head-to-foot garb, bras, girdles, high-heels, bikini’s, and gosh knows what else…

    Why are we letting men rule over our every move?
    I get hit every time I ask this question; hit by my mother no less, because she buys into being a second class citizen.

    Good luck with all that you want to be!

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