Listening in on the Next Generation of Conservative Women Rabbis

Letter from Jerusalem

When a group of women rabbinical students studying in Israel gathered in Jerusalem living rooms this past year, one of our diverse discussion topics was how we see ourselves, and how we are seen.

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. With the guidance of our teacher, Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz, our group began that process. We ventured back into traditional sources and examined our own emotions around topics such as niddah (laws regulating physical contact between a woman and her husband during her period and the days after), mikveh and head covering.

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, sister, 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.