By Rabbi Lisa Delson
Milestones are usually counted at years one, five, ten or twenty. In general a three-year period is not significant. However, three years in a new career is enough time to not be new anymore and, at the same time, not be so experienced as to forget what it means to be new. Since becoming a rabbi three years ago, I have learned a great deal through a lackluster job market, life-cycle events, serving as head rabbi during the senior’s sabbatical, dating, marriage, and life as a young, female rabbi.
Three years is also enough time to realize what I still need to learn. A month ago, a lively, elderly woman in my congregation died. Along with being one of the most generous of spirit, she survived the Holocaust, lived with her family, and always had a smile on her face when I saw her. Tragically, she died in a car crash alone.
Her funeral took place on a Thursday. During the funeral arrangements, I was asked not to participate. I suspect that it was due, in part, to the fact that her nephew and his family are Orthodox. It pained me not to be able to provide a service to this woman for whom I had such warm feelings. But what pained me more was the fact that my senior rabbi was able to pass because he is a man. It was neither his fault, nor mine. That fact is, he wears a kippah and is male – so he passes. He might not be considered observant enough, in some circles, but he was accepted as part of the minyan that day, someone who counted.
Growing up in our liberal, open, Reform movement, I had never personally encountered this stark contrast between the sexes. I knew that men and women pray separately in Orthodox shuls, that men and women are separated at the Kotel. I have lived those experiences but never in my life had I been overtly rejected because I am a woman. Some might think I am naïve for not taking this factor into account before the age of 30, but I suppose I could never really understand it until it happened to me.
There are so many women who have come before me who have experienced this pain that I felt on this 90-degree day in Michigan. So many women have fought to be counted in our movement and elsewhere in the Jewish world. To them, I have to say “I am sorry,” I never realized what that pain feels like and, unfortunately, now I do.
As I continue to grow in my rabbinate and mark years 13, 23, 33, and 43, I will continue to fight with words, actions, and prayers in my community to make sure that other young women feel like they have a voice. As many have said already, we have come so far yet there is still work to be done and so much still to learn.
Rabbi Lisa Delson serves as Assistant Rabbi and Program Director at Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, Michigan.