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Pardes Yehuda: Conservative Movement appoints woman to chair Rabbinical Assembly

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Conservative Movement appoints woman to chair Rabbinical Assembly

cross-posted to Jewschool

Last Wednesday the Conservative Movement announced Rabbi Julie Schonfeld will succeed Rabbi Joel Meyers as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly--she has previously been functioning as the Director of Rabbinic Development for the movement. Rabbi Schonfeld is the first woman to be appointed to the head of a rabbinic body--she said to the Forward, “I think that my rabbinate is really defined by the ideals that I share with all of my colleagues and with all Conservative Jews worldwide, regardless of my gender.”

This announcement, to me, is a welcome surprise. Some personal thoughts after the jump... (click below)

I did not grow up in the Conservative Movement (or any movement). I did not grow up in a synagogue; and when my family did join a synagogue it was a breakaway shul with 80 families and no synagogue--monthly Kabbalat Shabbat potlucks were held at the rabbi's home, which was also used for B'nei Mitvah lessons and ceremonies and perhaps a wedding or two; high-holiday services were at the JCC, and featured the aging male rabbi and a middle aged female part-time cantorial soloist, part-time Opera singer (in my imagination). My female Jewish role models were my mother, grandmothers, great-aunts, aunts... and I guess Bette Midler and Barbara Streisand...

Today I have many female Jewish role models in my biological and spiritual families, including many rabbis whom I am blessed to have as guides and teachers. I remember a discussion my first semester of rabbinical school in my halakhah class (taught by one of said rabbis who have been instrumental in shaping what will be my rabbinate). We were discussing the practice of including the imahot (the Matriarchs--Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah). We were maybe three weeks into school, and I built up the hutzpah to ask this rabbi why she did not include the imahot when she was the shlihat tzibur (prayer leader). Her response was unexpected and it has helped me understand the movement which I chose to affiliate with. She said, more or less, that it gave the appearance that something had changed and been fixed, when in fact it hadn't.

What I understood her to be saying was that adding the imahot may be enhancing to one's prayer and a beautiful act (albeit questionable in Jewish law, in my opinion) it does not help bridge a very wide gender gap which manifests itself in name (we have "rabbis" and "female rabbis," it is a bizarre and uncomfortable phenomenom which can only be remedied by having "male rabbis" and "female rabbis" or, preferably, "rabbis"), in pay, in appearance, opportunity and so many other ways.

Rabbi Schonfeld's appointment as Executive VP of the RA is a much more meaningful testament to working towards gender equality in the Jewish establishment. As I've been writing this article, I've been thinking about how gender has played into my rabbinical school experience as I enter my fourth year, and I am surprised to be feeling (maybe I'm candy coating it) that I don't feel like the school I attend has "female rabbinical students" and "rabbinical students." (Ladies, gentlemen, what do you think? Am I nuts?) I'm thinking this may be, in the likes of homosexual inclusion and minority inclusion, a generational issue. That progress towards this end is inevitable in the near future.

As Rabbi Elliot Dorff, of whom I'm proud to have as a teacher and role model, said in the Forward that "It’s 23 years after the first woman was ordained in the movement. That’s a generation, basically. We’re finally at the point at which woman could be appointed to a major administrative post within the movement.” Likewise, it was around as long ago that the issue of homosexual inclusion was first brought up and it took around as long to begin to make meaningful change.

As I think of those that I have met who, in the next 1-10 years, will make up the field of American rabbis across the movements (beyond the "three"), I think we are in for a lot of progress in American Judaism. We love to shower ourselves with a dismal outlook on the future of our people in its spiritual expression. We bemoan intermarriage as our death, and in the wake of tears, we forget that people desire to be moved and engaged. We go back and forth over "legal" minutae for months on end, as if the title "rabbi" gives us true jurisprudence to dictate people's lifestyles. Again, maybe I'm looking through rose-colored glasses, but I want to believe that as this current generation of new rabbis grows and evolves into leadership positions amongst the administrative wings of the movement there will be much progress in our spiritual expression towards melting some of these cultural barriers that tend to erode and divide community.

I don't know Rabbi Schonfeld, or anything about her, but I look forward to meeting her, which I suppose is inevitable either in her capacity as Director of Rabbinic Development or otherwise. I trust that she can guide the Rabbinical Assembly for the next 20 years as ably as Rabbi Meyers has done for the previous two decades. Obviously, having a woman functioning as the chair of the RA does not mean that gender issues in the Conservative Movement will disappear. Nonetheless, it is a powerful symbol of the advancement of women in the Jewish establishment. I think it is also representative of a sentiment rising for more substantial moves towards justice and equality issues (a la Hekhsher Tzedek and Uri L'Tzedek).

It's not that I expect Rabbi Schonfeld to wave a feminine wand and fix everything, but I hope her appointment holds true as an example of a shift towards more true egalitarianism, "beyond the bima," so to speak.

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