The Presence of Women in the Rabbinate Challenged People to Think about God in a Different Way.
The unconscious projections people often made, imagining that God looked something like their older bearded grandfatherly rabbi, couldn’t happen with a woman rabbi. It followed that the masculine metaphors of our liturgy became inadequate and people became more thoughtful about how we speak toward a God who transcends gender. Women rabbis encouraged people to think about life cycle rituals that spoke to the reality of their own lives, from covenant ceremonies for girls, to rituals for miscarriage, to ceremonies for becoming an elder.
For a conference in celebration of the 20th anniversary of women’s ordination, I was invited to deliver a paper on the experience of women rabbis. The career paths of women rabbis looked very different from those of men. Women tended toward education, chaplaincy, part time work, assistantships or small solo congregations. There were no women senior rabbis of large metropolitan congregations. Were women choosing different careers, or were they restricted by a stained glass ceiling? I discovered that few aspired to be like their senior colleagues, working without boundaries, leading top-down institutions. Some of them had negative experiences with their senior colleagues, not only inadequate mentoring but also abuse. I wondered whether large synagogues could be different, and whether I could be a different kind of senior rabbi.
I had a chance to find out. When Temple Emanuel in 1994 took a risk (I’d had no previous congregational experience) and chose me to be its senior rabbi, news reports read: “Stained Glass Ceiling Broken: Major Congregation Selects Woman as Senior Rabbi.”
At Emanuel, after a few years with my gifted assistant rabbi, I asked some leaders of the Reform movement for examples of career paths where an assistant becomes an associate and then a co-rabbi. None existed, and I was advised to steer clear of that vision. But those advisors were wrong. At Emanuel, we have been strengthened by a model of partnership rather than competition, of shared leadership rather than hierarchy, both among synagogue professionals and between clergy and lay leaders. It is a model encouraged by women rabbis who continue to be catalysts for change.
Laura Geller, ordained in 1976, is a rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, CA.