The Reform movement had been ordaining women rabbis for 16 years by the time Sharyn Henry was ordained in 1988. Still, in Pittsburgh the idea of a female Jewish spiritual leader was relatively new then and women rabbis faced some complicated, and often humorous, issues that their male counterparts did not.
There are experiences particular to female rabbis that remain today, although it is not always easy to parse out if divergent treatment is due to gender, cautioned Henry, rabbi at Rodef Shalom, who moderated a panel discussion on Dec. 17 at the synagogue. The panel included all four women who have served as rabbis for that congregation over the past 27 years.
The third program in Rodef Shalom’s “Wisdom, Wine, and Cheese” adult education series, the discussion included Rabbi Debbie Pine, who arrived at Rodef Shalom in 1992 as an assistant rabbi and is now the vice president of strategic philanthropy at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, appearing via live video; Rabbis Jessica Locketz, currently rabbi and director of education at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, and Sharyn Henry, who both began their work at Rodef Shalom in 1999; and Rabbi Amy Hertz, who served the congregation for five years beginning in 2008 and who now is the director of congregational learning at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, appearing via live video.
All four rabbis praised the training and acceptance they received while at Rodef Shalom, while also noting a few awkward or inappropriate responses by some community members. They also recounted challenges faced during their service to other congregations outside of Pittsburgh.
As the first full-time female rabbi in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, Henry dealt with a local funeral director who encouraged clients to delay funerals if the male rabbi was not available rather than use her services.
“The funeral home director just didn’t accept that women could be rabbis,” Henry said, “so he would say things to people like, ‘Well, the rabbi is out of town, but there is this new young assistant woman rabbi.’ And then they would be like, ‘Oh, we will wait for him to come back.’ He didn’t think I should be doing funerals, so he presented me in a way that was like, why would you want to have me there?”
Although almost a half century has passed since Sally Priesand was ordained by the Reform movement as its first female rabbi, one of the first questions female rabbis still are asked is “what do you want to be called?” noted Henry. The implication is that a female rabbi does not necessarily want to be addressed in a formal manner as her male counterparts most often are.
“It’s a question particular to female rabbis,” she said. “I don’t know how often a male rabbi is asked that.”
Pine, who is married to Rabbi Andrew Busch, said she has found “there is more that we share as male and female rabbis than areas where we differ,” and that being a woman in the rabbinate can work to one’s advantage.
She recalled being ordained in 1992 as a member of one of the first Reform rabbinic classes which was half women. At that time, she said, in looking for job placement, “it was actually an advantage to be a woman.
The women in my class did better overall in placement and there was tremendous excitement in large congregations about hiring women rabbis. It felt like a great time to emerge as a young rabbi.
“I felt the same thing at Rodef Shalom,” Pine continued. “I felt so warmly welcomed and greeted, and it felt like there was such enthusiasm and excitement for a woman clergy, and especially for a young clergy.”
And yet, there were comments made about or to Pine that would not have been made had she been a man.
“Early on a congregant came to Rabbi (Mark) Staitman and said ‘Rabbi Staitman, the new rabbi doesn’t wear nail polish,’” recalled Pine. “And Rabbi Staitman said, ‘Yes–that’s because it is the tradition of Rodef Shalom that the rabbis don’t wear nail polish. Dr. (Rabbi Walter) Jacob didn’t wear nail polish, I don’t wear nail polish, so it is the tradition.’”
The male rabbis at Rodef Shalom were wholly supportive of their female colleagues, the panel members agreed.
“Early on, my very first summer there, Mark (Staitman) and Walter (Jacob) left for the summer and left me there alone for a month which was great,” Pine said. “One of the families was having a bar mitzvah, and they said to Rabbi Jacob, ‘You know, we don’t think our family will be a hundred percent comfortable with a woman rabbi, so would you just stay and do the bar mitzvah?’ And Rabbi Jacob said without missing a beat, ‘Look you can have Rabbi Pine, or you can join another congregation.’ I did the bar mitzvah, and it was fine. So, I felt tremendous support from my colleagues coming in as a woman rabbi.”
Locketz, who was the second female assistant rabbi to be hired by Rodef Shalom, found that “both Dr. Jacob and Rabbi Staitman were very kind and helped me learn how to do a funeral Rodef Shalom style, and how to do a wedding and how to do a pastoral care visit here,” she said. “And I felt like I was really welcomed into all of the congregation. I wasn’t pigeonholed into what sometimes becomes the standard assistanceship roles of responsibilities. The three years I spent here were great years for me in learning how to be a rabbi.”
Locketz did, however, recall, officiating at shiva minyans, where someone would say, “‘We don’t have 10 men here, can we still have the service?’ I would look at them and say, ‘Well, I’m leading the service, so I think we are OK without 10 men.’”
Other experiences Locketz has had that are unique to being a female rabbi include the fact that “there is always someone who will say, ‘Oh, I’ve never kissed a female rabbi,’” Locketz said. “It’s like, well, now is not going to be the day.”
While the Rodef Shalom community was welcoming to Hertz, she did find a “challenge in Pittsburgh outside of Rodef Shalom, in the greater rabbinic community of Pittsburgh,” she said. “I had wonderful colleagues but because of the size and because of the closeness of all of our colleagues, I often struggled personally with what it meant to be a female rabbi outside the safety of Rodef, what that looked like and what that felt like in the larger community.”
Even after serving Rodef Shalom for 20 years, Henry remains stymied by the fact that some members of her congregation are as focused on her appearance as they are on her sermons and ideas, she said.
“I get about as much attention to what I say and how I do things as to what I look like, or what I wear, or my hair or my shoes or my clothes or my weight, or how big I was when I was pregnant,” Henry said. “I still feel that most of the conversations I have with people are not about ideas. It’s very challenging to do work and be up here and preach your heart out and do a sermon about something you believe in, and then to go to the oneg and to have people not say a word about it, but to tell me they like my dress or something. And I know they mean it as a compliment, and maybe they feel it is the only way to talk to me, but it is just so frustrating.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at