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Rabbis discuss anthology ‘Tales from the Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate’

 Preserving the legacy of women in the rabbinate was the common goal when Rabbi Alysa Mendeslon and Rabbi Rebecca Schorr collaborated on their anthology, "Tales from the Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate." The rabbis spoke about the historic significance of women in the rabbinate at the Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago Annual Meeting on Jan. 18.  

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(From left) Ellen Carmell, Jewish Women’s Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago Executive Director; Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr, speaker; Rabbi Alysa Mendelson, speaker; Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, special guest and Nancy Kohn, JWF Chair, at the JWF Annual Meeting Jan. 18. (Photo: Robert Kusel)

Preserving the legacy of women in the rabbinate was the common goal when Rabbi Alysa Mendeslon and Rabbi Rebecca Schorr collaborated on their anthology, "Tales from the Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate." The rabbis spoke about the historic significance of women in the rabbinate at the Jewish Women's Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago Annual Meeting on Jan. 18.

"Until recently, women were not the keepers of their own stories, Shorr said. "This is why this book is so important to us," she said. 

The rabbis co-edited and wrote chapters for the book published by CCAR Press and recently reviewed by JUF News

Shorr's father was a rabbi. "Gender was not an issue in my congregation (when I was) growing up," she said. One of her rabbis at summer camp was among the first 10 ordained rabbis who were women, an inspiring role model to the future rabbi. "It wasn't that she was a 'woman' rabbi. She was a rabbi," she said.

When Schorr announced to her parents that she was going to rabbinical school, her mother was concerned. "She saw what I didn't see, of how difficult it is in any career being a working mom, but especially to be a rabbinic working mom."

"From a very early age, women rabbis were part of my Jewish life," Mendelson said. "They helped me fall in love with Judaism." She wanted to be a rabbi until she saw the congregation's reaction when the rabbi had her first baby. People criticized the way the rabbi handled her children, how they behaved, what she wore, and so on. 

Instead of rabbinic school, Mendelson went to law school. She practiced matrimonial law for a year before she realized she was "supposed to be doing this…I took the leap of faith and went to rabbinical school," she said. "It truly is a sacred calling."

Reflecting on the changes during the past 40 years since the first woman was ordained, Schorr said, "Jewish communal life as a whole has been positively affected and influenced by the Reform movement allowing women to become rabbis."

"Women brought new issues to the table," Mendelson said. "And women also brought new styles of leadership to the Jewish world.

"When women entered the rabbinate, I think they helped move things in a different direction. The ways (women) think about success…it was just different (from men.) It was really about the quality of relationships and the way we connect with each other."

In the recent past-and the present-rabbis often serve their congregations with a top-down leadership style. Women in the rabbinate "can't be compared to that old paradigm," Schorr said. 

There have been ripple effects on Jewish life and the rabbinate in general, Mendelson said, noting that their male colleagues have benefited by a new definition of success. 

The book is an anthology of essays from Jews across the spectrum, written by both women and men. They each wrote chapters-Schorr's focusing on parenting, and Mendelson's, on the importance of setting a "Gold Standard" for maternity leave-three months of paid leave, so rabbis can spend the time with their newborns. 

"There are still women (rabbis) who are not getting paid leave at all, whose congregations don't want to put it in their contracts," Mendelson said, noting that often, the argument is that people in the corporate world don't get that kind of paid maternity leave.

"Please don't compare Jewish life or Jewish leadership or actually, what Jewish organizations should be doing to the corporate world," she said. "We are supposed to be the ones that show everyone the right thing to do. And while there may be corporations that don't want to do the right thing, Jewish organizations should always be at the forefront of doing the right thing." 

The Jewish Women's Foundation is an independent project of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The Foundation seeks to expand and improve opportunities and choices in all aspects of Jewish women's and girls' lives through strategic and effective grantmaking. The Foundation empowers Jewish women as leaders, funders, and decision-makers.

Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf is currently the rabbi of Port Jewish Center in Port Washington, NY, and has served for 11 years on the Women's Rabbinic Network Board and is its immediate past co-president. She is a 2016-17 Fellow with the NY Rabbinic Fellowship for Visionary Leaders.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, a contributing writer at Kveller.com, and is the former editor of the newsletter of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. She has contributed her writing to numerous anthologies, magazines and other publications. 

 




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