Local women rabbis had to claw, crawl their way to bimah

Two portraits of old men hung on the walls of Rabbi Stacy Friedman's childhood home. Wrinkles punctuated both men's bearded faces. Skullcaps covered their heads. Although Friedman knew nothing about the men, she thought of them as rabbis.

"These were my rabbis," said the Reform rabbi from San Rafael's Congregation Rodef Sholom. "They followed me through rabbinical school. And these rabbis reminded me what I was and what I was not. I was not like them."

Last week, Friedman and three other female rabbis ordained over the past two decades shared their visions during a discussion titled "Bursting Onto the Bimah: How Women Rabbis Have Changed the Synagogue" held at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael.

Ten years have passed since Friedman became a rabbi herself. As an ordination gift, her parents gave her the paintings of the rabbis. Friedman considered hanging the portraits in her office. But she never found a place for them and instead conveniently misplaced them. Nevertheless, the portraits haunt her.

She saw the faces of the old rabbis a few weeks ago, when one of her congregants congratulated her on her promotion to senior rabbi and asked, "Now are you going to grow a beard?"

Friedman took the question to mean: "How can a woman with two young children — and no nanny — have such a demanding job?"

For Friedman, whose class at Hebrew Union College rabbinical school had more women than men, the challenge has been balancing her role as a rabbi with that as a wife and mother. Since 1972, when Rabbi Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement, and 1985, when the Conservative movement ordained Palo Alto Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the doors to the rabbinate have been opening wider to women, except in the Orthodox movement.

"I was able to roll onto the bimah," Friedman said. "The question I grapple with today is how to stay on the bimah."

Ordained less than a year ago, Conservative Rabbi Chai Levy of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon confronts other challenges. "For me, there's now a different question," Levy said. "How can we enrich Judaism with the voices of women?

"Our rabbis passed on great wisdom and instruction for us," she said. "But it's incomplete because Torah was created by men for men. Now it's time for women to bring a necessary balance to the tradition."

Male rabbis overlooked blessings and rituals for women's life passages, like pregnancy and childbirth, Levy said. Today, female rabbis are creating them.

"Now we've moved beyond: Can women do what men have always done. Now we're weaving our voices in," Levy said.

Rabbi Judy Shanks of Reform Temple Isaiah in Lafayette has been writing prayers for women since her 1984 ordination. She experienced more resistance to her presence in the rabbinate than her younger colleagues. "We did not burst onto the bimah," Shanks said. "Sometimes we had to crawl, claw, cry out and commandeer it for our own."

Shanks recalled scores of firsts she experienced as a female rabbi. She remembered the first time she composed prayers for a miscarriage, the first pregnant rabbinic student, the first rabbi-rabbi marriage, the first women's seder and the first time a child asked her if boys can be rabbis too.

By the time Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco was ordained in 1997, women routinely served in Reform congregations. Mintz, however, forged a path for another group of rabbis — lesbians.

On many Saturday mornings only women fill the dais in Mintz's synagogue. "We call it 'chicks-on-the-bimah morning,'" Mintz said. She said men have complained about feeling uncomfortable without representation. She tells them, "Welcome to the last 3,000 years in history."

Despite their growing ranks, female rabbis earn only 72 cents for every dollar that male rabbis earn, Shanks said. She remembered the first thought of one of the congregations she applied to: "If she's single, we can pay her less; if she's married, we can pay her less."

Shanks expressed pride in having rid prayer books of male pronouns. The most significant contribution of female rabbis so far, she said, has been the new lifecycle liturgies they have written.

When her first child was born 19 years ago, Shanks wrote a poem she read at the baby's naming ceremony. Last week, the poem seemed as pertinent as it did when she composed it.

It's a prayer nearly all parents surely share but one a mother is more likely to take the time to write:

"Let my child never know the absurdity of warfare. Let her take part in the dances of peace."