I owe a major part of my Jewish identity to the generations of strong, rebellious women in my family. From a young age, I was guided to Jewish feminism by my grandmother Augusta and my great-grandmother Lina, who never accepted the limitations placed on them as women. Lina ran away from an arranged marriage in Europe and came to New York at 16, where she became a supporter of Eugene V. Debs and a follower of Margaret Sanger. She cut off her long hair and got an American bob, despite her husband’s objections. More significantly, after struggling to support the four children she already had, she gave herself two abortions. Augusta was widowed in her forties and ran her husband’s moving business for a time after his death. She then went on to work as a bookkeeper, preferring work to sitting at home. She had had to drop out of college to support her three brothers, but determined to finish, she finally graduated at 82.
Perhaps it isn’t too surprising that, coming from this rebellious lineage, I was kicked out of religious school at the shul my family joined as a child; long story short, the rabbi suggested I might be happier elsewhere. But lucky for me, it was at the other nearby synagogue that the spark that inspired my journey to becoming a rabbi was lit.
As the first woman to become the leader of a legacy institution of the Reform Movement, and as the proud descendant of inspiring Jewish women, I’m happy to say that the Reform rabbinate today is a leading force for gender equity in the Jewish world and beyond. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the first rabbinic organization ever to admit women as full members, has always been at the vanguard of gender equity in Judaism. As we celebrate our 130th anniversary this year, one major point of pride for our rabbinate is our more than 750 women members, a testament to our achievement in welcoming and providing opportunities for rabbis regardless of their gender. Today we see an unprecedented number of women rabbis in senior rabbi positions around North America, and represented in a full range of other rabbinic positions throughout the Jewish community.
This progress hasn’t come without struggles or challenges, both in my own life and for women in the Reform Movement broadly. At CCAR’s Convention in Cincinnati earlier this month, we heard stories of female rabbis who have confronted a range of challenges and barriers, from inappropriate language and behavior from congregants and other rabbis, to unequal pay relative to their male peers. These stories remind us that we can’t be satisfied with the progress we’ve made; there is still more to do.
Recent stories about serious, repeated allegations of gender discrimination and harassment in the Jewish institutional workplace also remind us of how much further our community has to go. One of the individuals accusing Michael Steinhardt of sexual misconduct in a recent New York Times article, Rabbi Rachel Sabath-Beit Halachmi, is a CCAR member. Her story and the others featured in that piece are emblematic of so many others. This certainly isn’t a problem unique to the Jewish world; stories and statistics about rampant sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other forms of discrimination abound in fields and industries from Hollywood to the tech world, from economics to the food service industry. However, as Jews and as rabbis, we do have a unique moral imperative to address these problems wherever we find them, including within our own communities.
For me, and for many other Jewish leaders, gender equity is more than just a feel-good cause. It’s an essential part of part of our faith and ethical grounding in issues of justice. All of us – men, women and gender non-conforming individuals alike – are made in the Divine image, and that means each of us deserves equal opportunity and treatment. Each of us should be able to achieve our God-given potential and the ability to use our gifts and strengths. Instances of gender-based discrimination, harassment, or bias aren’t simply individual acts of harm or hurt. These behaviors systematically deprive women and other victims of their dignity and get in the way of women’s professional advancement and success; they also contradict the core tenets of Judaism.
At our Convention, we continued the conversation about gender bias and how it impacts women rabbis, and ultimately our community as a whole. CCAR has been a leader in recognizing and addressing the unique challenges and obstacles that women rabbis face through our Task Force on Women in the Rabbinate. For the last two years, our Task Force has worked to identify, study, and address these challenges, from institutional gender-based bias, sexual assault and harassment, undermining behavior, and issues related to contracts, placement, and parental leave. The work of the Task Force is providing a foundation for congregations and communities to work collaboratively toward equitable treatment of rabbis and to combat discrimination in all forms.
As the incoming leader of CCAR, building on the work we’ve done so far and implementing the recommendations of the Task Force will be a priority for me. That will mean working closely with rabbis to address their unique, individual challenges, including providing support to the ever-growing proportion of our members who do not work as congregational clergy.
We have an increasingly diverse rabbinate in terms of both personal identity and careers. Just as we cannot make assumptions about what a rabbi looks like, we cannot make assumptions about the gender, sexuality, or race of a rabbi – the range of which is only going to increase in dazzling complexity and diversity in the years to come. This is a challenge, but also a wonderful opportunity to expand the definition of what it means to be a rabbi, and what it means to be a Jew. Our Jewish texts and liturgy have always exhorted us to give voice to the voiceless and to protect the vulnerable. Our growing diversity reminds us we are both part of the Jewish community, and part of a larger human community. It is our responsibility to confront the issues that affect the lives of those we serve and those of the greater community, issues like poverty, immigration, reproductive rights, racial justice, climate change, and antisemitism, whether they impact us personally or not.
We were blessed at this year’s Convention to hear from leaders like civil rights lawyer Roberta Kaplan and advocate Amy Spitalnick, trailblazing leaders in the fight against white nationalism; Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and leading criminal justice reform advocate; and Jim Obergefell, LGBTQ rights advocate and plaintiff in the lawsuit that legalized same-sex marriage. These remarkable leaders all discussed how the Jewish community – and the Reform movement specifically – can continue to lead on addressing all of these challenges.
I firmly believe that tackling the challenge of gender inequity, and removing the barriers that make it more difficult for women rabbis to do their important work, will allow us to cooperate even more closely and effectively in making progress toward these shared goals.
As I get ready to step into my new position, I look forward to working with rabbis, cantors, educators, and Jewish communal leadership across North America and throughout the world to cultivate communities where all people, regardless of gender, are truly treated equally and with respect. Together, we can make the vision inspired by countless generations of Jewish women, the dream of an even more equitable, just and diverse Jewish world, into a reality.
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief strategy officer and incoming chief executive for the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the leadership organization of Reform rabbis.
Rabbi Hara Person is the Chief Strategy Officer for the Central Conference of American Rabbis.