It Helps to Be a Feminist

How rabbis are using theory and practice to open up the synagogue

Time was, if you were a woman, it was a cutting-edge feminist act to become rabbi. When Sally Priesand was ordained, in 1972, by her very presence she broke the Reform movement’s 125-year male-only history; Sandy Sasso joined the Reconstructionist movement’s second ordination class as the only woman—and saw only a dozen follow her in as many years.

Then came the era of recognition that just “add-women-and-stir” was not a wholly satisfying solution to the “problem” of women and Judaism. This was the period—which continues to this day—of changing liturgy to include the names of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, of rediscovering women’s celebrations like Rosh Hodesh (the new moon), and creating rituals like a daughter’s baby-naming to parallel a son’s bris.

Today, the changes are broader, and deeper. Women rabbis and women’s ceremonies have become part of all but the Orthodox landscape. If you can’t find them at your own synagogue, you can find them at the one next door. Since 1985 the Reconstructionist movement has ordained more women (83) than men (75). In some circles, men are complaining about the “feminization” of the synagogue, while some younger women rabbis declare that feminism’s job is done.

Is this so? Nearly three decades after Priesand’s groundbreaking ordination, and 25 years after this magazine was founded to address some of these very questions, feminist rabbis—men and women alike—are asking themselves this question. Has the synagogue become a satisfying, gender-sensitive, environment? Can the very structure of synagogue life be re-crafted to make it a more organic experience for the men and women who worship there? And for the rabbi who leads? Is there room for deeper feminist change in an institution whose central text, the Torah, only scantily reflects women’s lives? Feminist rabbis, in pioneering congregations around the country, are saying yes.

An Inclusive Peace

Nahalat Shalom is an innovative congregation outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. Its name means “Inheritance of Peace.” Co-created by iconoclastic rabbi Lynn Gottlieb in 1982, it may have been the first-ever congregation founded by a woman rabbi.

This fall, 18 years into its life, the congregation is to open the doors of its very first building, an old Baptist church on 1 1/2 acres of land. Every Sunday in recent months, the congregation has held a work party to refurbish the building. They have painted and nailed and taken down the steeple. They nurture permaculture land, tend a community garden, and raise chickens. They will be able, the rabbi hopes, to feed themselves and “to fertilize the land with chicken shit.”

The evolving congregation is overtly feminist, radically democratic, determinedly environmental, artistically creative. To Gottlieb, “every value that I have ever cherished is unfolding itself.” To the members of the 180 households in her congregation, all of whom were previously unaffiliated with a synagogue, it represents a house of worship unlike anything they had ever experienced, one for which they have been willing to give up their won’t-join status.

Built on an ideological cornerstone, the congregation was set up with a feminist decision-making process characterized by a surprisingly generous sharing of power uncharacteristic of most traditional congregations, and by attention to the individual needs and spiritual paths of each member. “I wanted there to be true process— everybody has a voice and there is a process for expressing it,” Gottlieb explains. The synagogue has a Va’ad, literally a committee, instead of a board. It regularly holds community meetings in addition to weekly prayer, and in place of a Sabbath sermon, the rabbi speaks for ten minutes and then opens things up for a group conversation.

The process of deciding to invest in a building points to the remarkable attention and patience the congregation, under Gottlieb’s leadership, devotes to its members’ needs. The group started talking seriously about a building seven years ago. They talked in small groups, expressing their feelings. While Gottlieb was trying to maintain her role as spiritual leader to all, she also admits she had to “take people along” with the idea of a permanent site. Last fall, Gottlieb presented a sermon about “why we deserved a home for our vision of Judaism.” In the end, only one family didn’t contribute money toward the $324,000 project.

The valuing of the individual voice, of diverse experiences, and mutually satisfying solutions have long been tenets of feminist ideology. In addition, at Nahalat Shalom, Gottlieb believes synagogue life can be a center of creative expression—a far cry from the rigidity of traditional worship. She says she tries to nurture individuals to express “their own creative relationship to Judaism,” and to this end they run an artist collective, a Sephardic Heritage Institute, a retreat center, a Jewish- Arabdialogue; publish a journal called Desert Sage; have a 22-member community klezmer band; offer Rosh Hodesh groups, tikkun olam committees, a library, kabbalah study class, and special groups for teens, men, the elderly. All these activities are run, almost entirely, by volunteers.

“You don’t have to do everything,” says Gottlieb about herself, echoing the words of feminist rabbis around the country, who are looking to share the power and empower their members. “You should be midwifing the spirituality and talents of everybody,” she continues. “I try to have as much wisdom shine from as many people as possible.”

The Feminist Path

It is certainly true that there are no other congregations exactly like Rabbi Lynn’s. And yet, in its extremes, the synagogue embodies the range of feminist changes that rabbis around the country are choosing for their own communities.

Self-consciously feminist, these rabbis— leading congregations large and small, old and new, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Renewal and unaffiliated— have thrown out the old model for how to shepherd their flocks. There goes the stately desk in the Rabbi’s Study. There goes the Rabbi’s Study. There goes absolute halachic authority, and with it the formal sermon and the notion that the rabbi is the only person in the community learned enough to conduct services or preside over funerals. (How else can we say it? There go the trappings of the patriarchy.) In its place, these rabbis are looking to encourage intimacy and inclusion rather than intimidation, democracy rather than hierarchy, and working to be spiritual guides rather than religious taskmasters.

In the larger world of rabbinic practice, these feminist-based changes have fueled a trend. Currently there are some 40 projects under way in the various movements of Judaism in what is called, in the new terminology, “synagogue transformation.” These new efforts are driven by the idea that attending synagogue doesn’t have to feel like a dry routine, and by the recognition that obligation alone no longer moves Jews toward observance. What draws liberal Jews in today are opportunities for engagement, spiritual fulfillment and a sense that Judaism is not dictating laws but relating to their own stories. The synagogue reformers are also driven by the belief that the synagogue can in fact—after long desuetude—become the center of Jewish life once again. The programs, like Synagogue 2000 or the Experiment in Congregational Education, are not, for the most part, explicitly feminist. Though they attend to the very feminist ideals noted above, they are not often heard crediting their innovations to feminism.

“Much of the success of the feminist movement is reflected in the fact that so many feminist principles have become second nature,” comments 32-year-old Rabbi Adina Lewittes, who helped create the very feminist Kol Haneshamah synagogue in New Jersey three years ago. “Those principles have become absorbed almost unconsciously.”

And yet, for every synagogue engaging in its own reform there are certainly many more following traditional practices. Deliberate consciousness is necessary to suggest that the old structures can be replaced with essential democracy, that the silent congregant can be given a voice, that communities will benefit when the traditionally powerful share ideas and power with the traditionally impotent. Feminist principles all. And so it is for all these reasons that the synagogue transformation from hierarchy to intimacy is—in its roots, its ideal and its details—a feminist endeavor.

Toppling the Hierarchy

Kol Haneshamah, in Englewood, New Jersey, was founded three years ago by a handful of families looking to provide “alternative models of community.” Adina Lewittes, a Conservative rabbi, was part of those initial meetings, and she recalls the words that frequently came up in conversation: warmth, fellowship, informality, deeply spiritual. “I wanted to avoid replicating the hierarchy that dominates many synagogues structures,” to create a structure that would “reflect diversity,” she says.

In the beginning, that meant praying together without formal leadership, without a synagogue, without an official rabbi, without joining one of the major streams of Judaism. But as the community grew, deeply conscious conversations started about how to identify “leadership” and still adhere to an anti-hierarchical model. They’ve debated how to fill the community’s seven-person head committee, the Va’ad: Is it more democratic to elect people, to require participation with membership, or to take nominations that are then chosen by lottery?

It may sound like a mundane discussion, but a satisfying emotional outcome is key to creating the kind of community they are striving for. That’s why they hold monthly community meetings for members to express their feelings on everything from kashrut policy to whether to affiliate with a particular movement to how they envision the congregation’s ideal physical space. That’s why the congregation spent nine months “learning” before deciding to join the Conservative movement.

Of course, this chronic democracy is not without its difficulties. As a feminist concept, comments Rabbi Jane Litman, a progressive San Francisco-area rabbi, the idea of consensus may have gone too far. Process sometimes paralyzes decision-making. Indeed, says Lewittes, in the attempt to make decisions, “sometimes people’s dreams get pushed aside.”

Challenging the hierarchy of the synagogue doesn’t only bear on decision-making processes. As congregants become more invested in the synagogue, they begin to function as a community rather than a weekly prayer meeting. The weighty responsibility for the good works of the shul, be they visiting the sick, leading services or teaching the children, is taken partly off the shoulders of the rabbi and distributed to congregants. It’s a win-win solution: members feel engaged, and overworked rabbis get a break.

Many of the rabbis we spoke with, all of whom self-identified as feminists, said they only lead services part of the time, having trained members of the congregation to lead in synagogue, at a shiva and elsewhere. Increasingly, congregants are taking a role in tutoring children for bar/bat mitzvah, teaching classes and other activities previously designated for the rabbi. No turf battles here. At Suzanne Griffel’s gay/lesbian outreach synagogue, Or Chadash, in Chicago, each person is invited to participate in High Holiday services. “Every summer we call every person in the congregation who hasn’t responded to offer them a reading on the High Holidays,” she explains.

Not all of the congregants in these feminist shuls are young, gay or even self-consciously progressive. Margaret Moers Wenig is the rabbi at Beth Am, the People’s Temple, in New York’s Washington Heights, created 50 years ago by German-Jewish refugees who still make up about half of the congregation. When Wenig took a six-month sabbatical, she offered workshops to train people how to lead. Forty people joined, and when she came back, “they didn’t want to stop.”

Other congregations, working practically to relieve the pressure on the rabbi and ideologically to break down spiritual hierarchies, have created rabbinic partnerships. “We’re modeling the sharing of spiritual power,” comments Shira Milgrom, co-senior rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Westchester, New York.

Elka Abrahamson shared the pulpit at St. Paul’s Mt. Zion Temple for seven years with her husband, Martin Zinkow, co-senior rabbi. They had four children when she realized that “working myself silly just wasn’t going to work for anyone….I had to figure out a more reasonable life,” and also needed to “teach the congregation that this was okay.” She says people were confused at first about who the “real” rabbi was, but within a few years the congregation itself elected co-presidents. At a conference, Abrahamson recalls, someone said to her and her husband, “So who wears the pants?” A congregant interrupted, “Oh, we don’t think that way anymore.”

At Temple Emanuel, a large Reform congregation of 1,000 families in Beverly Hills and possibly the largest with a woman rabbi at its head, Rabbi Laura Geller has been leading the feminist charge. Through a Reform synagogue transformation program that is working with more than a dozen shuls, the Experiment in Congregational Education, she’s been thinking and talking a lot about how to make the rabbi less a figure on high. The synagogue’s associate rabbi, Jonathan Aaron, started four years ago as an assistant, and they are now imagining a future in which he is “co-rabbi.” Making it work “has a lot to do with chemistry,” comments Geller, “but is also has an ideological component. You have to be willing to give up a certain kind of power, and to me that’s a feminist model.”

Legal Authority or Spiritual Guide?

When Rabbi Jo David arrived at her pulpit in Freeport, Long Island, she found the rabbi’s study occupied. It held an enormous desk and an enormous black leatherette chair, clearly more suitable, she thought, for the outgoing rabbi’s 6′ than her 5’2.” Thinking the desk a “huge barrier,” she asked for different furniture. The congregation, she says, was offended—and refused—so she got the super to help her find alternative furnishings.

“I never understood how you could have a rabbi’s office where the rabbi sits behind the desk,” she explains. Indeed the rabbi’s study has often been a place of awe, and some fear, a bit like the principal’s office but with a sacred aura as well. So it becomes key for feminist rabbis who are seeking to refute the top-down model of the rabbinate to change the very space they work. Rabbi Lewittes’ shul in New Jersey currently doesn’t have a permanent home, and she takes pleasure holding those rabbi’s study meetings in her “home, the park, or in a sushi bar.”

As these rabbis come out of the study, and off of the bima, they need to deal with questions about their authority. If decisions are being made communally, should they be the only arbiters of Jewish law? If they are seeking democracy, are they wrong to put down their foot on an issue? What does it mean to have authority in a community where, ideally, every voice counts equally?

“What is a feminist model of synagogue transformation?” reflect Geller, whose work with ECE has been going on for three years. “The central notion of transformation is that the rabbi is not at the center, and that is a feminist notion.”

Most of these rabbis agree that their goal is to serve more as a spiritual guide than to tell people what to do, and that to do their work best is to empower their congregants without disempowering themselves. A rabbinical school teacher once told Rabbi Litman, the rabbi educator of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, that he felt most like a rabbi when he told people no, you can’t do that according to Jewish law. She spends a lot of time permitting rather than forbidding, telling people that “Jewish tradition speaks a lot more multi-vocally than you might have thought.”

Tirzah Firestone is by all measures a radical rabbi of the Jewish Renewal stripe. Her recent book, Roots in Heaven, recounts her search for the feminine in Judaism, and she did the same in her pulpit at the Jewish Renewal Congregation of Boulder. “Mostly the rabbi is someone who is going to help you connect to your inner Torah,” she says. Firestone opened every meeting with a prayer or a song, to help “everyone get into the same place. … We all humble ourselves in the face of the Shekhinah [the feminine aspect of God] first.” And should the meeting get testy, she’ll remind everyone that their business is “for spirit, not personal” and requests, “let’s breathe now.”

In her Englewood congregation, Lewittes tries to open up debate over religious decisions—to take for herself “a vote, and not a veto”—providing she is comfortable that the alternatives being discussed all fall within Jewish law. In one discussion about the role of non-Jews in the congregation, for instance, she sets halachic parameters by saying that non-Jews would not be called to the Torah. “I think it does stick out,” she says about those times when she asserts her authority, “but I also think it gives people a sense of comfort” to know there are boundaries. She herself has had to recognize that “to be powerful is not anti-feminist; asserting authority is consistent with leadership; and that strength does not necessarily mean dictatorship.”

People’s Life Stories Count

One effect of these anti-hierarchical changes is that the congregation is no longer dominated by a few large personalities—the rabbi booming from the pulpit or the cantor bellowing operatically. Congregants differentiate themselves and, by their contributions to the synagogue community, their personal narratives also become reflected in the communal life.

In part this means that these feminist rabbis reach beyond the traditional-family-in-search-of-a-Hebrew-school toward gays and lesbians, the intermarried, ethnic minorities, the elderly, the childless and the single person. In part it also means recognizing that the synagogue needs to connect with each individual as a person with stories and a particular history. In Litman’s California synagogue, the “Sisterhood is revitalized, and has given away running the gift ship and baking cookies” in favor of other activities like the “Communiversity,” a two day sharing of women’s skills: bee keeping, investing, medieval Jewish women. In Wenig’s Washington Heights congregation, when a congregant was mourning a relative who had been mentally ill, the congregation and rabbi created a liturgy for a Shabbat on mental illness.

Wenig’s stories are plentiful, each one the lesson of how a personal journey became meaningful to her entire congregation. In her effort to “give voice to those whose voices previously had not been heard,” Wenig (author of the now classic essay “God Is a Woman and She Is Growing Older”) and a group of elderly women wrote a Pirkei Imahot, Lessons of the Mothers, to parallel the traditional Lessons of the Fathers. The congregation also has created a notebook of reflections to read before the Mourner’s Kaddish. A man who was deaf spoke to congregation about raising a deaf child, and inspired them to raise money for assisted hearing devices; today they are used by the elderly, and even by people who leave the service for a moment, say to change a baby’s diaper. Another time, a gay boy was beaten up in a nearby park and the congregants, many of them remembering their lives in Germany, took care of him, “because they know what it’s like to be beat up in the streets.”

Over and over, Wenig tells stories of individuals crossing boundaries of age, sex, orientation, experience. One day, on an anniversary of Kristallnacht, a woman spoke about her experiences in Germany. A young woman recognized that her own parents had lived through the same event in the same town. Her parents, she told the woman speaking, had never shared their past. Then the speaker realized she had never told her own children about that time.

Wenig’s congregants have been her partners in these events. But even when things are difficult, these rabbis say, they try to create warmth and human interaction. Rabbi David, who tussled with her congregation over the furniture, recalls a phone call from a non-congregant, a man wanting a visitor “so he wouldn’t be alone when he died.” She asked a woman and her family “to kind of adopt him.” When that became an effort, the family “shared” the man with another family. He gave contributions to the shul and had his first aliyah at one of their bar mitzvahs. He told Rabbi David his life was changed through this, and when he died, “it was very special because we were all part of this family.”

These are, clearly, boom times for the increasing number of Jews who are looking to participate in Judaism, and not just follow its laws. This kind of holistic, spiritual, approach, may keep people involved for their whole lives, not just when they need a facility for a wedding, a funeral or a child’s Jewish education. They are precious for the rabbi as well. “The advantage I had,” says Wenig, “is that because everyone else was granted a voice, then I had a voice, too.” A voice, she means, as a person, not just as the Rabbi.

The Personal Side of the Profession

by Sarah Blustain

Tirzah Firestone recently resigned her pulpit Jewish Renewal Congregation of Boulder. Starting a new marriage, inheriting four children, and publishing her book Roots in Heaven, “It became clear that congregational duties were beginning to split me.”

We’ve heard that before, from Superwomen in every profession. While feminist rabbis make change in congregational life, they’re trying to redesign the profession as well. Comments Rabbi Elka Abrahamson, “Women have pushed that question of balanced lives up higher on the agenda.”

In addition to the lack of balance, women rabbis note lower pay and lack of respect. One young rabbi told LILITH “there are sometimes more comments about what I wear than what I say” and that “women rabbis are still seen as women first and rabbi second.” Melanie Aron, from a Silicon Valley synagogue, admits people sometimes do “slip up….They have to blink their eyes twice and realize that just because I wear a dress doesn’t mean I’m support staff,” she says.

“Often women rabbis encounter double messages,” comments Rabbi Yael Ridberg, the 31-year-old associate rabbi at the West End Synagogue in New York. “They want you to be passionate but not overbearing, they want you to be [an] authority but not beat them over the head with something, they want you to be open and caring but also professional.” Ridberg has nothing but words of enthusiasm for her egalitarian Reconstructionist congregation, where decision-making is often by consensus and feminine God-language is a real option. And yet there is more to do. “I have the degree, I have the job, I have the business cards; now I think it has to be a paradigm shift—we cannot assume that Judaism is finished evolving simply because women are rabbis. There is still much work to be done in the liberal communities.”