Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, March 18, 2022

Women's History Month and the Jews

2022 is a major milestone year for Jewish women.

Two names must be mentioned: Sally Priesand and Judith Kaplan.

Let’s start with Sally. On June 3, we will celebrate 50 years of women in the rabbinate. Sally Priesand is the first woman to be ordained publicly as a rabbi by a Jewish seminary. There were learned women before her: Regina Jonas who was ordained privately in Germany, Ray Frank, and Asenath Barzani, as well as others who held positions of moral power. But Sally is the one who broke the glass ceiling for women like me.

Rabbi Jennifer Clayman wrote this moving tribute to Sally:

Because of you, Sally, and those who came after you, I was never told that a woman can’t be a rabbi. Because of you and those who came after you, my rabbi was able to stand up on teh bimah at the Bat Mitzvah and tell me he thought I should be a rabbi…today, I wouldn’t say that I take women rabbis for granted, because I don’t. And I won’t say that we’re accepted everywhere, because we’re not. But we’re not so unusual either. I was the fourth woman rabbi hired by my congregation, and we’ve since been joined by the fifth. The congregation is accustomed to women’s voices from the pulpit, women’s ideas about God, Torah and Israel, and women’s authority in difficult times. We owe you a great deal. Your chesed has changed our lives and changed a world that has missed women rabbis for far too long.

But before this golden anniversary of the first woman rabbi, we will celebrate Judith Kaplan. On March 18, 1922, Judith became the first American girl to have a bat mitzvah ceremony. That is 100 years of women approaching the bimah to take their rightful place as full participants in Jewish life, learning and ritual. 50 years of women leading these communities.

I’m struck by this. On the one hand, 100 years ago feels like a long time ago. There are now generations of women and non-binary folks who have been called to the Torah and are finding inclusion in Jewish life.

But if you think about it, it took 50 years for the first bat mitzvah to transform into acceptance for the first woman rabbi. Change is slow. Only after battering down the door of one barrier can you move forward and prepare yourself to take down the next.

This timeline demonstrates how important it is to take public, courageous steps into the future. 

We should never underestimate the power of example - the power of representation and public inclusion. Only after a generation of young women saw themselves standing at the Torah could they then begin to dream of leading the Torah service and their community.

So let’s apply the same logic to today. For 50 years, we have seen the benefit of fully including women in Jewish leadership. Our community has more insights, a wider array of experiences to learn from. We have made incredible strides in areas of parental leave and we’ve called out abuse of power that existed for too long. Women have brought this to the table.

But now is not the time to stop and rest. It is again the time for transformation. And it begins again with visibility.

A prayer of thanks to today’s trailblazers and iconoclasts - the LGBTQ+ leaders of our community. To the Jews of Color. These are folks who have been ignored or simply tolerated. Now they are to be celebrated.

Just dream of what we’ll be celebrating 50 years from now. Too often we Jews believe ourselves to be a dying people. We question if we will fade into the fabric of America and lose our way. But if history has taught us ANYTHING, it’s that we are an evolving people. I can not even begin to predict what today’s youth will bring us. But I know that if they continue to hear from as many voices as possible - if they have the opportunity to see their most authentic selves represented in positions of power - not just on the bimah but in our schools and in the halls of congress - then we will see some incredible transformations of our society. So here’s to the next 50 years. Or, if we work hard enough, it won’t take that long.