London conference draws 3 from Bay Area: Female rabbis tackle equal pay, advancement, frustration

LONDON — Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette had trouble believing what she heard. A German colleague of hers received money from her community to help pay for rabbinical school — but only on the condition that she not return to practice in Germany because "they're not ready" for a female rabbi.

On the other hand, Rabbi Melanie Aron of Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos relayed a much more heartening story about a lay-led Reform community in Eastern Europe. Worshippers had grown to the point where they felt they needed a rabbi, so they selected one member of their community and sent her to rabbinical school.

Shanks, Aron and Rabbi Camille Angel of San Francisco's Congregation Sha'ar Zahav all attended a four-day conference here of the Women's Rabbinic Network last week. It was the first held outside the United States, demonstrating the growing number and importance of female rabbis internationally.

"Some of our colleagues abroad are just tremendous heroes," said Angel. "They are a pioneer generation which my peers and I are too, but the women who came before us made it enormously easier."

The 100 women who gathered here for a conference came from different countries, but they found that they face many of the same challenges.

Rabbi Kathleen de Magtige-Middleton, the presiding rabbi at the main conference site, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in West London, co-chaired the meeting.

Female rabbis, she said, "come up against many challenges, struggles and opportunities that may not be shared with male colleagues."

For example, Middleton, who trained in London, is not allowed to practice as a rabbi in her native Holland.

A major preoccupation for female rabbis in Britain and the United States is equality of pay and responsibility with their male counterparts. In Britain, for example, no female rabbi occupies a senior leadership role, Middleton said.

Aron added that even a woman who was elected head of the professional rabbinical organization in Britain could not find a post as a senior rabbi.

"It's very easy for them to find jobs right out of school, but when it's time to advance 10 years later, there's nowhere for them to go," said Aron. "The unemployment rate for women rabbis in Britain is quite high."

"Women rabbis often feel isolated, especially in the U.K. and continental Europe," Middleton said. "This conference is an opportunity to build bridges and to find support and inspiration from other women on the same journey."

For Jackie Tabick, who in 1975 became the first woman ordained as a rabbi in England, this week's conference was a milestone.

"It has made me feel that I'm not alone anymore," she said. "Eight years after the first woman was ordained in the U.S. there were 50 women rabbis. In Britain, there are 30 after 35 years."

For some of Tabick's American counterparts, the struggles of female rabbis in Europe have made them reflect on the daily difficulties of leading a congregation.

Rabbi Myra Soifer called her European counterparts "heroic."

For Rabbi Marcia Plumb, a conference co-organizer, it's especially important that the meeting was held in England. Plumb, who was born in the United States but is based here, sees a renaissance in the British Reform and Liberal worlds, sparked in part by women.

"There is an enhanced sense of drive and enthusiasm," she said, and "many of the new ideas — such as the creation of new prayers — are coming from women."

The first female rabbi was ordained in 1972 in the United States. In Germany, women were ordained in the 1930s.

With women coming to the conference from the United States, Belarus, Israel and several European countries, the theme was building bridges among female rabbis in different countries.

Rabbi Nelly Shulman, based in Minsk, Belarus, has to travel about 5,000 miles to meet her nearest female colleagues in Germany or Hungary.

In a country that only recently emerged from what Shulman calls "the black hole of communism," the main issue for her congregants is not whether to have a female rabbi but how to build Jewish identity.

"People only now, after 12 years of the Reform movement" in the former Soviet Union, "have got to the point where they are shaping their identity, who they are," Shulman said. "People don't care that I'm a woman; they're happy for anyone to be there."

Aron of Los Gatos said what impressed her most about communities like Shulman's was that it was such an affirmation of Reform Judaism.

"There are 85 of these homegrown Reform institutions, run exclusively by laypeople who are seeking to reconnect with their tradition in a way that's congruent to who they are. We're not Chabad, we're not sending people there to help them, so that's very affirming," she said.

For Rabbi Katalin Keleman, traditional views on community leadership in Hungary have made her gender a major stumbling block. Jewish groups outside of the liberal community she serves do not even recognize her as a rabbi, she said.

Both Shulman and Rabbi Cathy Felix, an American, spoke of Orthodox suspicion toward the liberal movements, though the situations in Hungary and the United States clearly are different.

Shanks had met Keleman when she went on a rabbinical mission to Prague and Budapest in 1999. She was happy to meet her Hungarian colleague again and discover that since they met, her colleague's congregation has doubled.

Another universal theme was how female rabbis can change the culture of Judaism. Like women in other professions, many of the rabbis try to juggle traditional roles as mother and homemaker with their working careers.

The rabbis need to "fight society's expectations of role," Tabick said. "Women are seen as nurturers, not as leaders."

Even on a community level, women often take behind-the-scenes roles, with men taking more prominent positions in spiritual and practical matters.

Plumb, who teaches at London's Leo Baeck Centre for Jewish Education, recalls a member of her community asking, "If you're here, who is doing the cooking and the shopping?"

"Well, my husband is doing the cooking and the shopping," she replied, "and that's just fine."

Plumb admits it can be hard for people to accept a female rabbi as a leader. But the influx of women into the rabbinate shows that women represent all parts of the community, she said.

Some female rabbis work on a part-time or freelance basis, sometimes because of family commitments but sometimes to explore new models of leadership. Plumb herself works with a team of rabbis at the Southgate Progressive Synagogue. The model, in which several rabbis share decision-making and practical responsibilities, is unusual for British Jewry, she said.

"The style of women rabbis, and the fact that women represent equality, give the approach of inclusion and intellectual integrity that modern Jews appreciate," she says.

Despite an openness in the progressive movement, there is little uniformity for women at worship.

For example, levels of participation in services or the wearing of prayer shawls by female congregants vary from one synagogue to the next.

For many, the lack of uniformity is unsettling. But for Plumb this diversity is the key to an informed choice of worship.

"Rules keep people safe and I agree that people need a path, but the path can be broadened and the path will still be there. It will not disappear," she says. "There has always been a wide range of views; why should it be different now? Modernity has shifted the boundaries and it can be frightening to have more avenues, but Judaism can still have diversity."

For Angel of San Francisco, the trip had personal meaning; her father had served in London as a young rabbi in the 1930s. When one of her British colleagues heard who her father was, she put Angel in touch with a woman now in her 80s who always wondered what happened to him.

On a lighter note, Angel told of leading services one morning and having the women link arms as they sang together. Some of her colleagues told her after how moved they had been, but one British rabbi told her something along the lines of "that was too touchy-feely for us. That would never go over at British synagogues."