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Making Room for Ima on the Bima

It did not feel like a compliment when someone told me that I was the “prettiest” rabbi he had ever seen. Nor did it feel like a compliment when a congregant said he was really impressed with me although he always thought “ima” — Hebrew for mother — “did not belong on the bima.”

I experienced many of these backhanded compliments during my 18 job interviews. But the most frustrating moments of the search was when I was asked, over and over again, how I planned to manage motherhood along with the demands of being a rabbi.

During rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I served at five congregations — including a synagogue that Newsweek has deemed one of the “25 most vibrant congregations in America” — as a part-time assistant rabbi, and received two prestigious fellowships, including a Wexner Graduate Fellowship. And having graduated on time, maintaining an “A” average all the while having two children within two years, I expected that being a woman would not interfere with my ambition to serve the Jewish community as a rabbi. Yet, congregations were still concerned with how motherhood might interfere with my ability to do the job. When I asked my male colleagues with children if they were asked the parenthood question, not one responded that they had.

This summer I am beginning a full-time job as director of congregational learning at a synagogue that truly values egalitarianism and women rabbis. My excitement about accepting this position was somewhat tempered, however, by the knowledge of how much harder the search process is for women (with or without children) then it is for men in the same situations. For example, I was the only woman rabbi in our graduating class looking for a job who received a full-time offer before ordination (one other was continuing her chaplaincy position), while all of the men in our class had full-time positions by then. The difficulty that JTS’s female graduates are facing with their respective job searches was covered in this recent article in The Jewish Week.

My male colleagues are highly qualified and will make excellent rabbis. But how can it be that talented, newly ordained women rabbis, trained and committed to serving the Jewish people, are not being given the same chance to do this important work? Conservative congregations are complaining about dwindling numbers, lack of pastoral care and the need for spiritual enrichment but are unable to see past old models of what a rabbi should look like.

It is time that congregations re-think which questions will best help them uncover our strengths, instead of putting us in the position of playing defense. During my interviews, congregations wanted me explain how I could excel even though I was a mother. In my rabbinic work up to this point, I often heard comments that reflected how much better a rabbi I am because I am a mother.

It is time that we are asked, “How has your experience of being a woman and/or mother made you a better rabbi?” and “How has it enabled you to reach congregants in a different way?” If congregations had asked these questions, they would have learned that I often hear comments like “You are the first rabbi that I have ever connected with” and “Your sermons are always relevant.” You would understand that being a mother has taught me how to live and teach the core Jewish value of transforming the mundane into the spiritual.

Women rabbis will ensure the success of Conservative Judaism. For our synagogues, the only question is: Will yours be the lucky congregation who gets ima on the bima?

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