Women’s Rabbinical Ordination 30 Years On…

by Rabbi Debra S. Cantor

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What do you think will be the impact of women rabbis? How will you change the rabbinate?” the reporter asked me. I was in the old Unterberg Auditorium at JTS; it was September of 1984 and we were registering for our fall semester courses. “Um, I’m not sure,” I answered. “I haven’t been to my ?rst class yet.”

Back then, of course, it was too early to tell what effect women might have on the rabbinate. Despite the fact that the Reform movement had ordained its ?rst female rabbi in 1972, followed by the Reconstructionists in 1974, female rabbis were still  a relative novelty in the Jewish community.

I had long been active in the effort to ordain women in the Conservative movement. In the late ’70s, I was a graduate student in the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at JTS and most of classes were in the rabbinical school. Often, I was the only woman in a class. The women all knew one another and knew, as well, that most of us passionately wished to become rabbis.

During that period, a group of our male allies – rabbinical students and Conservative rabbis – started a grass-roots organization called GROW (Group for the Rabbinic Ordination of Women). GROW organized rallies and press conferences, sent letters and arranged for speakers to go out to congregations. I agreed to head GROW’s Speakers Bureau, a thankless job as I could seldom get anyone else to schlep out to a synagogue early on a Sunday morning or return late on a weekday evening. So most of the time, I was the speaker, and often, the audiences were not particularly supportive.

I remember returning from one of these programs at a synagogue located near the very end of a subway line. Maybe it was the many hours I had spent on the subway, or maybe it was the sheer repetition of my canned speech, or maybe I was just plain tired. But I thought to myself: “This is not what I wanted to do with my life.” I was sick of trying to convince people that women should be allowed to become Conservative rabbis; I just wanted to be a rabbi already! A regular rabbi.

That’s how most of us felt. We wanted to be accepted as plain, everyday rabbis, not forced into the special category of “women rabbis.” We realized we were going to be joining an old boys’ club (a really old one!) and our primary desire was to be accepted as genuine members of that club. Of course, all the women have stories about those early years: about the ways in which we were held to more exacting standards than our male colleagues, how we had to constantly prove ourselves, how we worried about issues of self-presentation (e.g., what am I going to wear?), and about trying to carve out time for our personal lives even as we were building our careers.

I kept thinking back to the question repeatedly posed to us by reporters when we entered rabbinical school: How will women impact the rabbinate? I had imagined I would be able to respond to that question within a few years of ordination. But 10 years after my friend Amy Eilberg was the ?rst woman ordained, I was no closer to an answer. The movement was still ambivalent about women rabbis. The conference marking the tenth anniversary was not particularly celebratory; in fact, equal time was allotted to speakers who were opposed to women’s ordination!

Fast forward to April 2015, as the Rabbinical Assembly celebrated the 30th anniversary of women in the Conservative rabbinate. This was a celebration indeed! It was exhilarating to hear about the accomplishments of female colleagues, to honor the varied career trajectories of the pioneers, and to hear about the exciting initiatives and years of devoted service by female rabbis of every generation. Women rabbis are no longer a novelty; we are long past struggling to be recognized as valued and authentic.

In fact, these days, I embrace the notion that I am a “woman rabbi.” I know that my being a woman is inseparable from who I am; I know that I would be a different person, and a different rabbi, if I were not a woman. I’m just ?ne with that.

So, what has been our impact? Honestly, it’s still a hard question. So much has changed in the Jewish community, and the world, in the last three decades. And 30 years is but the blink of an eye in terms of Jewish history. It’s far too soon to assess the in?uence and contributions of women rabbis. But I can say this for certain: It has been an enormous blessing to have had the door to the rabbinate open for me when it did, and to serve the Jewish people as a rabbi in a variety of ways. I hope to be granted the health and energy to do so for many years to come. Despite all the challenges, what an amazing privilege!

Rabbi Debra Cantor is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield, Connecticut. A member of the first JTS Rabbinical School class to include women, Rabbi Cantor was ordained in 1988.