We were more accidental than intentional revolutionaries. We did not understand then that when you start out as the “first” anything, you always remain the “first.” If you were the first woman to be hired as an assistant in a congregation, you naturally would be the first woman to be made associate there. If you were the first woman to become pregnant in that congregation, you would naturally become the first woman to negotiate maternity leave, to bring your baby to the Temple preschool, and to see your child become bar/bat mitzvah and confirmed. I thought I was done with all these firsts when I packed my kids off to college. Then our colleague Rabbi Patti Karlin Newman called and said, “Your son is the first son of a female rabbi to graduate from Stanford, so you are going to be invited to deliver the Baccalaureate at his graduation.” Never let it be said that there are not great honors in being first. The drive that got us to rabbinical school drove us apart when we got there. It was our singular achievement that had gotten us this far, not our collaborative ability. Along with our male classmates, we studied hard. We were grateful for their support, but their experience was different from ours. We women labored under the added pressure that the individual sins of each of us were to be visited upon the whole. “The women” didn’t talk loudly enough; “the women” didn’t know how to carry the Torah, We worked against each other until finally we realized that competing made a lonely experience even lonelier. In the fledgling Women’s Rabbinic Network, we tested out the possibilities of support and trust which fortunately have evolved into the blessing of friendship.
Ellen Jay Lewis, ordained in 1980, is the rabbi at the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, NJ, and is a psychotherapist in private practice.