Finding “The One”

I’m not actually going to dispense relationship advice in this blog, but if you haven’t read this article (or checked out The Young Clergy Women’s Project), I strongly encourage you to do so.

When I try to explain what senior placement was like at HUC-JIR, it goes something like this:

“So, they pick a location, and all of the students meet there, and congregations send representatives, and over three days you meet with 12 different places. Then two days later someone calls  and lets you know if they want to see you again.”

The response is typically, “So it’s like speed-dating?”

And I say, “Yeah, pretty much!”

This time of year, I’m  thinking of our sisters in their last year of rabbinical school, getting ready for senior placement.

As someone who has been in placement a few times in the last six years, and been on that other market the whole time as well, I can’t help noticing some similarities between the processes. I’m in no position to dispense advice–I’ve had just as much failure as success on both fronts–but I have gleaned a few things along the way that have helped me in my search(es).

Thought you'd be interested to know that this is the first image that comes up when you google "woman rabbi."

Thought you’d be interested to know that this is the first image that comes up when you google “woman rabbi.”

1) Presentation Matters: This is true of our resumes and portfolios, but also ourselves. We don’t want looks to be important when we’re looking for someone to love us for our mind and soul, but sometimes we have to make a good first impression to get our foot in the door. Our clothes, hairstyle and makeup should make us look good and feel good, whatever our age or body type (Visit Beauty Tips for Ministers for more on this topic). Also, Rabbi Rachel Greengrass taught me to wear clear nailpolish. It looks neat, it’s always in style, and it doesn’t show chips.

2) Be Open, but Know Your Dealbreakers: In my first search, I was willing to go anywhere in the country for the right position, until I got stuck in the Atlanta airport for four hours each way while interviewing in Mississippi. I realized that I needed to live someplace that was a direct flight to where my parents live, and that this would only get more important as time passed. But I have learned not to limit my search to a particular type of work. I had only looked at pulpit jobs until I “clicked” with a Jewish day school. Sometimes great opportunities arise where we least expect them.

3) Know that they are putting their Best Foot Forward: I wish I could remember who said, “And if it’s not good, they don’t have another foot.” I went on a great interview a few years ago at an amazing congregation. As I was preparing to return to the hotel, I heard the head of the search committee on the phone with the car service, chewing out the dispatcher for not making the driver wait when the interview ran late. It was eye-opening to know how people in the community behaved when they didn’t get what they want. On a related note…

4) Pay Attention to Small Kindnesses: I was told, after the fact, that I was an early favorite for my last job in part because I wrote a handwritten thank you note after the interview. At the same synagogue, the head of the search committee managed to find my favorite cookies and bring them to the hotel for me. I’m sure we might have made a match regardless, but being thoughtful, polite and attentive never hurts. Especially when it involves cookies.

5) “Good on Paper” Doesn’t Always Mean a Good Match: In senior placement, there was one job that almost everyone in my class wanted. I went into the interview hoping to rock it–and it went as well as it possibly could have–but I left the room knowing it wasn’t the right place for me. That wasn’t the only congregation that, when I heard who they hired, I said, “Yeah, that’s who I would have placed there, too.”

6) It’s Not About Perfect. It’s About Perfect for You: The best advice I ever got for my other search was, “Don’t pretend to be someone else. You’ll just end up stuck with someone who doesn’t like the real you.” For placement, I shortened this to, “I can only be me.” There were certainly times that I knew I might be more appealing if I answered a question in another way or if I put on a different kind of show. And while it’s important to reexamine our beliefs and our behavior on a regular basis, changing them just to land a job (or a partner) is a recipe for disaster.

7) You Never Know When It’s Going to Happen: Placement can be a multi-year game, especially when you want something really specific. I went through an intense search two years ago and found nothing worth making the leap. Then last year, I interviewed for exactly one job on a whim and ended up taking it three weeks later. My head is still spinning.

8) This Is Not (Just) a Job Interview: This is the beginning of a relationship. This may not be a forever thing (and everyone makes mistakes sometimes) but if all goes well, you will be spending every day for the duration of this relationship figuring out ways to bring these people joy, learning how to comfort them when they’re upset, and nudging them, ever so gently, towards living a better life. And, if you’re lucky (and I certainly have been), they’ll be doing the same for you.

Sending prayers for strength, wisdom and patience to everyone currently in placement. I’ll close by asking our esteemed colleagues: what advice would you give women rabbis searching for a new position?

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is on the faculty of Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, Ma. She blogs at


Crossposted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

While Hannukah has, in the past, coincided with other American holidays, for some reason, its proximity to Thanksgiving has turned into a “thing.” I’m curious to see how this plays out in terms of cooking experiments, and also whether it increases or decreases the likelihood that Jewish families will light their menorah (or menurkey, if you must). But I guess it’s only fair, since this may very well be the only Thanksgivukkah in our lifetime or, depending who you ask, ever.

Thanksgiving and Hannukah already have a lot in common. Both are thought to be tied to the biblical holiday of Sukkot. While no one can prove it, there is a strong suspicion that the Pilgrims based the original Thanksgiving on Sukkot, a harvest festival they would have known from reading the Bible. Hannukah, a ceremony celebrating the rededication of the Temple after it was defiled by the Syrian-Greeks, was actually a late celebration of Sukkot, which the Maccabees had missed while they were fighting. This is one reason that Hannukah lasts eight days, though the Hasmoneans were also trying to reenact the original eight-day dedication ceremony for the mishkan. The “miracle of the oil” story came later, in the Talmud (and yes, I totally ruined a bunch of fourteen-year-olds’ Hannukah by telling them so).

I’ve loved watching people geek out over the Thanksgivukkah math. My ninth graders started the year with a unit on the Jewish calendar, so I showed them this article in class and it kind of blew all of our minds (this one and this one are pretty good, too). It was great to see them apply their knowledge of leap years and lunisolar calendars to an actual historic event. We’re all on the edge of our seats to see if any rabbis step in to correct the Jewish calendar–and who would be entrusted with such an enormous task?—when Hannukah starts drifting into springtime…in 10,000 years.

And part of me finds this particularly delightful: that the descendants of a people who thought they might never survive the winter, and the descendants a people who thought their religion might die out within a generation (and sometimes still does), are now optimistic enough to fret about whether or not their holidays will coincide once again thousands of years in the future.

That’s actually what both holidays are really about: That long ago, a small group of people with limited resources banded together and dared to hope that they might have enough light, warmth, and sustenance to get through their darkest hour. And then they gave thanks, because even something as basic as survival was more than they ever could have hoped for.

While many argue that Thanksgivukkah may never happen again, some say that Hannukah will start on the Thursday night of Thanksgiving in 2070. So whether you call it Thanksgivukkah depends on what time you eat dinner (what a debate Hillel and Shammai could have over that one!), but there will be an overlap again this century. It may be too audacious to hope that we live to see it (I’d be 89–ptu! ptu!), but I pray that a little spark of whatever it is we cherish survives so that these two festivals can overlap again. And that whoever is fortunate enough to live from now until then, is also of sound enough mind to remember where he/she stored their menurkey.

Happy Thanksgivukkah!

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is on the faculty at Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, MA.

So, this is new…

About a month ago, I left my position as an associate rabbi in a medium-sized congregation, and moved to another state to work at a pluralistic Jewish high school. There have been a lot of changes in the last few months: new city, new job, new apartment and, in a series of unexpected twists: new glasses, a new bumper and new tires for my car.

But one of the biggest changes so far has been this: When I go to synagogue now, I’m a congregant.

There are definite upsides to this. I don’t have the weight of  High Holy Day sermons on my shoulders, though my mind still zeroes in on interesting news items I could use in a sermon. (I don’t know if that ever goes away). That has been replaced with the weight drawing up a syllabus and planning assignments for my classes, but also with the weight of preparing myself for High Holy Days as a layperson, the most concrete task of which is finding a spiritual home for myself.

So far, I’ve been to minyan at a Conservative shulan in-home potluck-and-services with an aging Reconstructionist chavurah, and a trendy Kabbalat Shabbat for young professionals at a large Reform synagogue. It’s been so long since I even had the option to choose my own worship experience that I’m not even really sure what I’m looking for, but I suppose I’ll know it when I find it. I did have a moment of checking in with myself at a minyan and thinking, “Nope, still not Conservative.”

But denomination is only a very small part of what makes me feel comfortable in a synagogue. I’m not Reconstructionist, either, but the warm welcome and the deep conversations I experienced with the dozens of strangers at the chavurah made me want to go back. And even in places when the worship was completely comfortable for me, I could still feel alienated if no one approached me (though the introverted part of me also panics when everyone descends on me, which sometimes happens when I’m the only person under fifty at an event).

I never expected to find these in my mailbox!

I never expected to find these in my mailbox!

I’m also learning what it’s like to be on the other side of the phone when it comes to the tachlis of synagogue life. The check that I had so proactively mailed before I moved–so that I wouldn’t be “that girl” calling for HHD tickets on Labor Day–got lost in the mail. I ended up being “that girl” who called/emailed repeatedly asking if/when my tickets would be mailed (and also “that girl” who saw right through the concerned email asking “if I was okay” because I hadn’t made my pledge yet).

When I moved to North Carolina to start my pulpit job, I was enveloped by a caring and supportive community, all of whom knew that I was coming (I think there was  a press-release!). I now understand the anxiety of being new to town and wondering whether I’ll have a “home” for the holidays. After years of wondering how I was going to shmooze my way across the room by the end of oneg, I now know the loneliness of standing by myself wondering if anyone is going to say hello to me.

I recognize that I have some unfair advantages. I came to this search already knowing that there is a place for me in the organized Jewish community, even though I don’t know yet where that is (or whether I’ll have to create it myself). Years of rabbinical training have made it possible for me to take the initiative and introduce my introverted self to people, though there’s still always a part of me that hopes I won’t have to. I am well-connected in the Jewish world, so it’s rare that I don’t meet someone I can’t connect to through Jewish geography. And I’ve moved to a community where I’ve lived before and where I do actually know a lot of people. I can only imagine (kal v’chomer) how it must feel to move to a new city, knowing no one, not having that kind of support, and not knowing where to start.

This High Holy Day season is going to be very different from the decade of service-leading that preceded it. And I can already tell you that, should I one day find myself back on the pulpit for Yamim Noraim, that experience is going to be different too, because I’ll know, from my own experience, what it’s like to be in the pews when the shofar sounds.

They’re Singing My Song

Today is my last day of work at my first full-time rabbinical position. It’s been, thankfully, a long goodbye, which meant that both my congregation and I had a lot of time to prepare for my leaving. They also had a chance to throw me an incredible send-off party, complete with speeches and songs and a level of kavod I thought I’d have to wait for retirement to experience!

Still, I’m nervous, not just about change in general, or about the challenges of this new opportunity in particular. I’m scared to leave this people I’ve come to love and the community I’ve poured my heart and soul into over the last five years. What will become of the classes I taught, the services I created, the relationships I’ve built?

I found some comfort last Shabbat at our Family Service. It was my turn to tell the story, which is one of my favorite things to do. If you’ve known me for a long time, you know that I don’t like to do anything without notes, so telling a story, from memory, with audience participation, helps me celebrate how much I’ve grown during my time here.

I chose a story I had heard from a classmate at Brandeis ( which can be found in Three Times Chai as “The Melody”) in which a man gets lost in the woods and happens upon a group of men singing a beautiful melody. He doesn’t want to forget the enchanting niggun, and so for the rest of the story, whenever someone speaks to him, he answers, ai ge-dumbadi dumbadi dai, ai ge-digi digi digi digi dai…

This goes on for quite awhile (as Jewish stories tend to do). Finally, when the man is about to shipped off to an asylum, because everyone thinks he’s lost his mind, the people of the village come to say goodbye. As the carriage pulls away, the entire village begins to sing  ai ge-dumbadi dumbadi dai, ai ge-digi digi digi digi dai…

The man yells, “STOP!”

Everyone turns to look at this man, who hasn’t spoken for weeks, in amazement, “Nu?” the driver says, “Now you can talk?”

The man responds, “When I first heard that beautiful melody, I was worried I might forget it, so I sang it every chance I got. But now I know that everyone in the village knows the tune, so it can never be forgotten. Now I can stop!”

It is a fun story to tell, because each time you repeat the melody, more and more people in the congregation start to sing along, almost without thinking about it. So, by the time you get to the climax of the story, when the carriage is pulling away, you can point to the congregation and they will play the part of the villagers, singing the tune on their own.

(This story is also a great illustration of how easy it is to learn a new melody!).

When I chose to tell this story, I thought that I was telling it to comfort my congregants. Yes, I’m leaving, it seemed to say, but you know this melody now. You can sing it without me. It’s yours now.

But I needed to hear that message too, as well as another one: You’ve been singing your song for five years now, Leah. It’s not necessarily going to stay the same after you leave. People will forget parts and add parts and improvise on the theme. Soon someone new will come in and may teach them a different tune. But they all know your melody now. They can sing it without you. Now it belongs to them.

I also came to realize that teaching the melody goes both ways. My congregants say they have learned a lot from me. But I have learned just as much from them. Each of them has brought their own expertise to the table–their professional knowledge, their intellectual interests, and their life experiences–but they have also taught me plenty about being a rabbi: how to listen, how to question, how to teach, how to learn, how to admit that I don’t know or that I’ve messed up.

They’ve been patient, compassionate, and supportive as I perfected my song. Each of them has brought their own melody to the mix, teaching me the songs of their hearts, and now I can take them with me, wherever my path may lead.

All together now:

Ai ge-dumbadi dumbadi dai, ai ge-digi digi digi digi dai…

With Bells On

Thus said the Eternal: Again there shall be heard in this place…in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem…the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and bride, the voice of those who cry, “Give thanks to the Eternal for God is good, for God’s kindness is everlasting!” as they bring thanksgiving offerings to the House of the Eternal…

-Jeremiah 33:10-11

It is an historic and joyful day in the United States. It’s one of those events where you want to remember where you were and how you felt when it happened. I was on the elliptical at our local JCC this morning when a woman burst in, flushed and excited, to deliver the news that DOMA had been ruled unconstitutional.

I rejoiced not only because of the ruling, but because I live (if only for a little while longer) in a community where this woman had no fear that her joyous reaction to this news would be unwelcome. Even in a state whose government is openly hostile to same-sex couples and their families, there are pockets of tolerance and acceptance, and I’m proud that our Jewish community is one of them. Last week, when I mentioned at services that Exodus International had closed its doors and apologized for years of trying to “convert” gay people, everyone cheered.

The Jewish community has also been instrumental in my own education about the concerns of the LGBT community. In many ways, my colleagues at HUC-JIR were the first to explain to me the struggles that same-sex couples and LGBT individuals face, both within the Jewish community and in the wider world.

It was through the Jewish community that I witnessed my first wedding of a same-sex couple, and learned the phrase ha’mitchadeshet v’hamitpatachat, which a few of my colleagues have added to k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael in same-sex ceremonies. It translates loosely as, “According to the ever-evolving laws of Moses and Israel.”

It pleases me to see that our civil laws, too, are evolving, for all of the individuals, couples, and families I have come to know in the various communities that I have been a part of. It delights me to watch the changing of attitudes throughout our society.

One of my favorite examples of shifting attitudes occurred in our synagogue last fall. This is possibly my favorite experience of my rabbinate so far:

Right after Amendment One passed in North Carolina, two of our congregants approached my senior rabbi and me about a ketubah. They had been together 20 years, and had held a very private commitment ceremony 18 years earlier. Since then, the non-Jewish partner had converted, and both women became active in the synagogue.

“We want a piece of paper that says we’re married,” they told us. “Ironically, the only way we can do that is through a religious institution.” The desire for a ketubah  morphed into a full-blown wedding, which included a good number of supportive congregants.

A year earlier, this same couple had wanted an anniversary blessing at our Shabbat morning service, but they were concerned because the service was populated mostly by seniors. The seniors knew both women well (the two of them coordinate the volunteers for the luncheon afterwards), but the women feared that they may have thought that the couple were just “really good friends.” Although they typically felt safe in our community–they often mentioned that it was one of the few places they openly held hands–the couple didn’t want to upset anyone by being “in your face” about their relationship.

Their fears, however, were unfounded. Everyone shared in their joy on that day and, a year later, when they invited those same older service-goers to their wedding, one 90+-year-old woman, replied, “I’ll be there with bells on!” And if you look closely at the photograph below, you’ll see: She is wearing actual bells!

2012-10-14 17.53.43

I still dream of a day when all communities in the United States can be this joyous in celebrating same-sex unions. In many of my marriage ceremonies, when the marriage license is being signed, I offer a prayer. “This is the only secular part of the marriage ceremony,” I say. “So here I offer a prayer that one day everyone in our country should know the joy of having their marriage legally recognized.”

And when that happens, I want to be there to celebrate. With bells on.

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, Shehecheyanu, V’kiyimanu, V’higiyanu lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, for giving us life, sustaining us, and bringing us to this joyous time.

Amen. Selah. Halleluyah.

The Next Step on the Jungle Gym

I’m in a goal-setting group with a few friends who are also in helping professions. Last month, we were asked to pursue goals related to the theme of “adventure.” You’ll never guess what I did…

I decided to take a new job, leaving my pulpit of five years.

This is the first time I’ve ever left something that wasn’t naturally coming to an end. I went straight from college to graduate school, and took this job right after ordination. I figured this, too, would be temporary, and surprised myself when, at the end of a three-year-contract, I didn’t want to leave. I loved my community, and I had built a good life for myself. Each year, I developed deeper relationships within my community and more confidence in myself. I liked where I was enough to wait for an opportunity that was worth the risk.

That opportunity came in form of a teaching position at a pluralistic Jewish high school that was eager to add a Reform rabbi to their faculty. I was inspired by the vision of the head of school, and excited by the idea of spending the majority of my workday doing what I love best: teaching Torah and creating meaningful worship experiences, building relationships and empowering the next generation to lead their best Jewish lives.

As excited as I am about this new opportunity, it has been very very difficult to tell my congregation that I am leaving. The letter I sent out arrived at only some houses before a busy weekend at the synagogue, and so the news spread more by word of mouth than I had hoped. I had to tell some people myself, and I was overwhelmed by the emotion of their reactions. But everyone did their best to say, “I’m happy for you, and sad for us.”

The hardest thing has been the people who demand an explanation, not only for my decision to leave the synagogue, but for what they perceive as my decision to “leave the pulpit.”

I did not make a conscious decision to seek out only non-pulpit jobs. I love being a pulpit rabbi. There’s no “but” in that sentence, either. I love guiding individuals and families through the life-cycle, telling stories to the children on Shabbat, and preaching to a packed house on the High Holy Days (though anyone close to me will tell you that I am very unpleasant to be around in the weeks leading up to Tishrei). I don’t even mind that I can’t go anywhere without running into one of my congregants (I ran into one of them at our last WRN Convention in Memphis!). It makes me feel like a local celebrity.

When I first dreamt of becoming a rabbi, I didn’t know there was anything besides congregational work to do. Although I had student placements in Hillel, chaplaincy, and organizational work, my time at HUC-JIR reinforced my desire to work in a synagogue. This was not only because I loved the work, but because, as a woman, I felt it was important for me to break down barriers and confound stereotypes by pursuing a full-time pulpit, first as an assistant, then, eventually, as a solo at a small congregation.

Two experiences at HUC-JIR solidified this conviction. The first was a WRN panel on the New York campus. As I recall, there were four women on the panel, and not one of them was working full time on the pulpit. Some of them weren’t doing rabbinical work at all.

The second was a visit by a prominent first-generation woman rabbi, one who had spent her career doing full-time pulpit work and had choice words for those of us who didn’t: “I worked really hard and made a lot of sacrifices so that you would have these opportunities.” I remember her saying. “And so many of you aren’t taking advantage of them.”

So no one was more surprised than me that a teaching position would be the one opportunity I couldn’t pass up. But I knew that this was a time in my life and career to do something different, and that this job would inspire and challenge me in entirely new ways.

I’ve found ways of reassuring the concerned parties that I will still be a rabbi, regardless of title or location. I tell them that rabbi means “teacher” and that I’ll still be leading tefillah every day. I tell them what excites me about the work I’ll be doing, and that this position will give me a new set of skills and knowledge to bring to whatever community I will ultimately serve, whether that is a pulpit, a school, or something else entirely.

As I prepare to make this huge and unexpected change, I find that I need that reassurance just as much as my congregants do. I’ve found it in many places: from colleagues, friends, family, and even the congregants who know me best. But I also found it in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which I happened to read in the airport on my way back from the interview for this job. She writes:

“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder….ladders are limiting–people can move up or down, on or off. Jungle gyms offer more creative exploration. There’s only one way to get to the top of a ladder, but there are many ways to get to the top of a jungle gym…Plus, a jungle gym provides great views for many people, not just those at the top.”

Praying for strength, wisdom, and agility as I take this next step.

168 Hours

I read a lot of books how to manage one’s time and make the most of one’s life, a question all rabbis need to address at one point or another, both for themselves and their congregants. Most recently I picked up Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think.

juggling clocksThe premise is simple: there are 168 hours in a week. Spending the requisite amount of time working, sleeping, and attending to personal needs, there should still be plenty of hours in there to spend quality time with loved ones, and even squeeze in other passions, like playing an instrument or writing a novel. The trick is to be intentional about one’s time.

I was totally hooked by the premise. However, I soon found myself at odds with Vanderkam’s approach to reorganizing one’s time.

While Vanderkam offers helpful exercises and thoughtful questions about how we spend our time, and shares stories of people with different careers and family structures, her book is overwhelmingly about restructuring one’s life to spend more quality time with one’s family (I inferred from this that she assumed that people without children already have enough time for everything and would never read such a book).

Vanderkam doesn’t offer a disclaimer about writing from a place of privilege and from a particular family structure. She is a freelance writer with a working spouse and professional help raising her children. Many of her suggestions are not going to work for someone who doesn’t fit that mold.

For one thing, one of her major suggestions is to outsource everything that isn’t a “core competency,” not only housework, like cooking and doing the laundry (which I happen to love doing because it’s part of my day-off ritual), but also the less satisfying elements of one’s paying job. If that’s not possible, Vanderkam says, it’s time to think about making bigger changes in one’s career.

In that vein, Vanderkam does ask some really thoughtful questions about what we want to spend our workday doing, and challenges the notion that the hours we spend in the workplace are equivalent to the hours of actual “work” we do. She talks about the hours of our workday that are wasted in activities that don’t utilize our “core competencies” and offers two options: 1) work within your job to restructure your schedule and minimize wasteful activities 2) leave your job and find or create one that makes the best use of your time.

Then she says this:

“How do you get to that position of confidence?….First, if possible, don’t be the only person in your family earning an income. While two-income families have their own issues, they give the person who would be the sole breadwinner more flexibility. When you are your family’s sole means of support, it’s hard to quit a project or take a big career risk that might allow you to focus more on your core competencies” (Vanderkam 97).

I have to say, I took issue with this remark. I was raised in a household where my father was the primary breadwinner. My mom worked (and still works) as a nurse because she finds the work meaningful, but she never had to think twice about cutting back her hours to be a stay-at-home mom (she referred to her weekly 3-11 shift as her “night off”) or quitting a job when it became intolerable. She never had to worry about fighting for health insurance or a retirement plan from her employer, because my father’s employer provided these benefits. She never had to ask for family leave, because she could just cut back her hours.

My life and career are going to look different from my mother’s. And so I was troubled by Vanderkam’s notion that the solution to a career issue is to fall back on one’s spouse. This not only comes from a place of privilege (many of my partnered friends don’t have that luxury either), it perpetuates the notion that a career (particularly a woman’s career, though Vanderkam doesn’t say that explicitly) is about an individual’s personal fulfillment and not financial sustainability.

Like many books and articles coming out on how to “have it all” and/or advance in the workplace, Vanderkam doesn’t address the radical changes that need to happen in our society, in order to give women–and men–the opportunity to pursue fulfilling work while having families or pursuing other passions.

Imagine the “confidence” and freedom women and men of all skill and income levels might gain if we had a higher minimum wage, pay equity between genders, universal health-care, universal preschools, or tax-deductible child-care. We might choose to work more, knowing that our children are in good hands, or less, knowing that our healthcare and childcare needs will be provided of regardless of whether we are part-time or full-time. Imagine how these and other infrastructures might make it possible for everyone to re-imagine how we spend our 168 hours.

Esther, Vashti, and Women of the Wall

My sermon from last Friday night, cross-posted to This Is What A Rabbi Looks Like.

When I was a first-year rabbinical student in Jerusalem, one of my classmates organized a blood drive in our student lounge. As I was lying on the stretcher, needle in my arm, the medic looked at my purple kippah and said, in Hebrew, “Is it Purim today?”

Purim is a holiday when everything gets turned upside down. Jews are the victor and not the victim, and we “celebrate” until we don’t know Haman from Mordechai. It is also the only day in the calendar when “cross-dressing” is permitted by Jewish law. Hence, the only space in which that medic could imagine a woman wearing a kippah was not a Reform rabbinical seminary, but rather a holiday when women are allowed to dress like men.

Purim that year was my first experience with Women of the Wall, an organization which has been fighting for the past 24 years for the rights of women to pray and read Torah, wearing tallit and tefillin, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. One of the grounds for opposition to this group is that their donning of ritual garb is considered begged ish, cross-dressing. While that reading of megillat Esther proceeded undisturbed, probably due to the general chaos surrounding us, in recent years we have seen a resurgence of aggression towards Women of the Wall.

Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, posits that because ultra-orthodox men in Israel do not work to provide for their families, relying instead on government assistance while they study, they feel lowered in esteem, emasculated. They feel “like women,” and so resent women who behave “like men,” by working outside the home, attaining high levels of education, or praying publicly. Rather than change their own circumstances, they assert themselves in the only way they know how: by imposing stricter laws of modesty on women in public space, including at the Western Wall.

This past month, 10 women were detained during the Rosh Chodesh service for wearing tallitot. Bonna Devorah Haberman, one of the original members of Women of the Wall, wrote a brilliant article retelling the story of this month’s detentions in the form of the megillah. She generously casts Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, head of the ultra-orthodox Western Wall Heritage Foundation, as the King. The police who detained the women are cast as Hegai, the keeper of Ahashuerus’ harem. The role of Mordechai is played by the four veterans from the 55th Paratroop Brigade—who liberated the Western Wall in 1967—and who accompanied the women to this month’s service.

One thing that makes this megillah particularly interesting—aside from the fact that there is no one playing Haman—is that Haberman goes back and forth between casting the Women of the Wall as Vashti—the openly defiant queen who is banished because she won’t play by the rules—and Esther, the paragon of beauty, grace and obedience who replaces her.

The real megillah gives us two female heroines, but only one clear message about how women should behave. While in modern times, Vashti is celebrated as a feminist hero, in the megillah she doesn’t last very long. The “real” heroine is Esther, who moves between being manipulated and being a manipulator, between hiding her identity and proclaiming it proudly. Only when her cousin Mordechai begs her does she take a stand, and then only when she has thoroughly charmed the king and earned his favor. Even then, she asserts herself in a decidedly “feminine” way, making herself completely vulnerable to her male counterparts by prostrating herself before the king and making a very humble request, first for a dinner party, then for her life.

There are many positive messages in the Purim story: to be proud of who we are, and to stand up for what we believe in, even when we are scared. But it is interesting that the heroine of Purim is a woman who behaves, for the most part, as women are expected to behave in that time and place.

Although the Women of the Wall are treated as rabble-rousers, their request is even more meager than Esther’s. Once a month, for one hour, they wish to be able to pray, as women, according to the Orthodox tradition, in the Women’s Section of the Western Wall. They asking for what Hoffman calls, the “four t’s” during this hour: tefillah, Torah, tallit, and tefillin.

A 2003 court decision determined that it is not legal for women to read Torah at the Western Wall itself, only at Robinson’s Arch, a designated area near the site. Over the past few years, women have frequently had religious articles confiscated, or were detained, interrogated, and even arrested and banned from the Western Wall, for the crime of “performing religious acts that offend the feelings of others.”


This month’s detentions received a lot of attention because, among the 10 women who were detained, was Rabbi Susan Silverman and her 17-year-old daughter Hallel Abramowitz. Rabbi Silverman’s sister is the comedian Sarah Silverman, who responded by tweeting something I can’t repeat in support of Women of the Wall. She then made a more family-friendly public statement to CNN, saying:

“I don’t care much for people who use religion as a cloak to justify hatred, injustice and fear. And I can’t imagine God, should He or She or It exist, does either. I am so proud of my sister and niece for fighting for what they believe in—by having the nerve to pray at the Western Wall while being female.”

I used to study with Rabbi Silverman, and was proud to see her and her daughter, now Israeli citizens, standing up for their right to pray publicly. But I couldn’t help but notice two trends in the media coverage. There was not a single article about their arrest that did not mention that the women were related to Sarah Silverman, aside from Haberman’s megillah. Most publications mentioned it in the headline. There were also very few articles that did not feature a picture of the beautiful young woman that Hallel has become in the ten years since I’ve seen her.

Like Vashti and like Esther, these women had the courage to stand up for what they believed in, even at great personal risk. But, also like Vashti and Esther, the way they are treated is often bound up in how they are perceived as women. The Purim story asserts, if subtly, that the only way a woman can survive in a man’s world is to behave like a man’s definition of a woman. And while we may learn many things about courage from this text, we must reject this notion that there is only one way to be female, just as we reject the notion that there is only one way to be Jewish.

Tablet Columnist Rachel Shukert writes that Sarah and Susan have more in common than it might seem: “When Sarah was starting out, most of her critics seemed to be focused less on what she was saying than that a woman was saying it; …. Similarly, the only thing remotely controversial about Rabbi Silverman’s actions is that she is performing them while female. To her opponents, a man donning a prayer shawl is a sacrament, commanded by God; a woman doing the same thing is an abomination.”

When Ahashuerus learns of Esther’s identity, he wants to overturn the decree but cannot, because it is already sealed. But the Jewish tradition is not sealed by a royal signet ring, and it is not owned by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation or the ultra-orthodox. It is open and evolving, and there must be room for every expression of Jewish identity and gender identity in our people’s story.

Whether we ask nicely or demand defiantly, on Purim, we, like our ancient heroines, have the opportunity to overturn an oppressive regime. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, has been charged with finding a solution to the “problem” of women’s prayer at the Kotel. Please join us as we write to Mr. Sharansky (at the WOW site and the IRAC site) and make our humble requests: that there should be times set aside for women’s prayer at the Kotel, and, hopefully, soon afterwards, a time and space for mixed-gender prayer. We also need to remind Mr. Sharansky that part of this solution needs to be dismantling the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, and requiring the police to arrest the harassers, and not the harassed. We must broaden the definition of “performing a religious act that offends the feelings of others” to include aggression by the ultra-orthodox towards progressive Jews. Make it illegal not for a woman to wear a tallit, but for people to shout obscenities and throw things at the women who do. Make it illegal, not for women to behave “like men,” but for people to behave like animals.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the associate rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC.

It’s (Not) Hard to be a Jew at Christmas

I had a really lovely Christmas this year.

chineseIt sounds silly to hear that coming from a rabbi. But the concept of a “Jewish Christmas” has evolved so that, rather than try to meld the two traditions together by way of a Hannukah Bush or Hannukah Harry (or this monstrosity, which deserves its own post), we have developed our own beautiful Christmas Day tradition. I spent the day volunteering with my fellow Jews, serving lunch at the Ronald McDonald Room at Duke Hospital.  I skipped the movie this year (I just know that Les Mis is going to break my heart), but I really enjoyed running into my fellow congregants during the traditional Chinese meal (check out this hilarious Talmudic discussion of this tradition).

When I was growing up, in a public school in a mostly Christian community, Christmas could be a huge pain. My whole family was Jewish, and actively so, so I didn’t have to deal with what we now call the “December Dilemma” at home. I knew who I was and what I did and didn’t celebrate, but the rest of the world hadn’t quite caught up. I got irritated when Santa wished us “Merry Christmas” at the mall (my much more defiant older brother once replied, “And a Happy Hannukah to you!”).

There were enough Jews in my school district that I didn’t have to deal with the theological aspects of Christmas in class or in the choir. As a musician, though, I did have a disdain for hokey “holiday” music in general, even the token Hannukah song, which very often sounded like a yuletide carol with the word “Christmas” replaced with the word “Hannukah.” In high school, by then a proud NFTY kid, I once walked around on the last day before winter break with a handmade sign saying, “Wish me a Happy Hannukah” pinned to my sweater.

On Christmas day itself, my mother, a nurse, worked a double-shift (for time-and-a-half pay AND doing a mitzvah for her Christian co-workers!) while my dad and brothers and I went to a movie. Later, we all met up for dinner at Garden China, or, if my mom was too exhausted, we brought it home. Volunteering was a later addition to the mix. As a teenager, my youth group once brought so much food and so many volunteers to the local shelter that we were able to serve the patrons at the table and eat with them.

Never once do I remember feeling jealous of my Christian counterparts. Sure, I felt annoyed that everyone assumed that I celebrated Christmas. But I don’t remember feeling like I was missing out, not even on those later nights of Hannukah when gifts of books, clothes, and music transitioned into socks and underwear.

Now that I’m grown up, it’s a relief to be spared from the Christmas shopping and traveling. I’ve heard it’s a relief for those who grew up with Christmas as well, such as Annette Gendler, a Jew-by-choice who wrote this piece for Tablet Magazine.

Recently, a Jew-by-choice in our community explained to me why this was the case, quoting back to me what my senior rabbi had once said to her, “If your children have a rich and active Jewish life, they’ll never feel like they’re missing out at Christmas.”

Now I work with a lot of interfaith couples, where the question of how to shape ones own family traditions is more fraught. I can’t make the decision for them whether Christmas will find its way into their home. So often, I hear from congregants that it is the one concession made in an otherwise entirely Jewish household. But I can remind them that a full and vibrant Jewish life includes year-round opportunities for gift-giving, house-decorating, costume-wearing and sweets-eating. We even have a magical, mysterious man who visits our houses once a year, even if he doesn’t bring us presents (we’ll have to work on that).

While we get to experience panic and over preparation at Passover and on the High Holy Days, we have, as of yet, been spared the commercialization of Hannukah (though each year I see it creeping into holiday marketing. I don’t know if this is a good sign or a bad sign). And in this relaxed atmosphere, we have even been able to develop a beautiful Christmas tradition of our own: serving our community, and spending some much-needed down time with our  families and our Jewish friends, without the pressure of cooking or gift-giving. That’s a pretty great Christmas gift for the Jewish community.

That, and I’m glad to have my radio stations back.

MissRepresentation and the Women Rabbis’ Pledge

Originally posted on

A few weeks ago, our Women’s Group teamed up with several other local Jewish institutions to bring a screening of MissRepresentation to the Triangle area. MissRepresentation is a documentary film about how women are portrayed in the media, and the detrimental affects this portrayal can have on women and girls, and the public’s treatment of women and girls. Sexualization and objectification of women, impossible standards of beauty, reluctance to show women as complex characters or potential leaders, and the pitting of women against one another—all of it contributes to an epidemic of eating disorders, body issues, depression and low self-esteem, and makes it more difficult for women and girls to imagine themselves in positions of leadership.

This film is a must-see and a must-discuss. Host or find a screening in your community. Bring your daughters. Bring your colleagues. Bring your youth groups and religious schools. I can’t cover all of the issues the movie addresses, so you’ll have to see it for yourself. I can only speak to how it felt to watch it as a young female rabbi.

I want to begin by saying that no one ever told me that I couldn’t be a rabbi, and the issues I struggle with are a gift given to me by the generation of women who made it possible for me to pursue this profession in the first place. I am so grateful to them, and I can’t even imagine how my struggles compare to theirs.

Watching this film, I kept coming back to a moment, over a decade ago, when a group of my college classmates and I were gathered at a URJ Biennial convention. Many of us were considering the rabbinate or other Jewish professional work, and one young woman commented that a friend of hers had rejected the prospect because, “Women rabbis are frumpy.” (I think there was something about mustaches in there too but I will have to ask my colleague if she remembers).

We took it upon ourselves to break that stereotype, taking what we called the “Women Rabbis’ Pledge”: we would dress stylishly, wearing clothes that fit. We would put on makeup, style our hair and, this part I remember exactly, “we will wax what needs to be waxed, and pluck what needs to be plucked.”

This wasn’t a serious thing. We didn’t swear on Bibles or sign a contract. I joke about it all the time. But watching the movie today, I realized what had happened in that moment: there were women in that group who could not consider pursuing a path to the rabbinate, until they could break down the stereotype of women rabbis as unattractive. And that is something many of us have come to take very seriously.

This pledge followed me all through seminary and beyond: I remember long talks during placement my senior year about suit color and nail polish, skirt lengths and heel height. At another campus, colleagues of mine–all women–were brought into an administrator’s office, where they were told that their weight would be an obstacle to getting a job.

Although I have never been one to closely follow trends or spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the mirror, I take my appearance very seriously. I struggle with my weight. I blow out my hair and put on makeup every day. And while you may see me in workout clothes at the JCC, you will never see me in jeans or sweats at the synagogue.

Part of this is a simple desire to look professional, whatever that means. Part of this is because of all those media messages I get about how I need to look good to be listened to. Part of it is because I believe in the motto of Beauty Tips for Ministers, “Because you’re in the public eye, and God knows you need to look good.” (BTFM is great, by the way, because there is an emphasis on looking and feeling your best, whatever your natural size and shape, with an eye towards beauty and modesty instead of focusing on “cuteness” and sexual attractiveness).

But there is another layer to this for me. I want to be a role model to our young girls and women. I want them to see the rabbinate–and other high-status professions–as a possibility for themselves. And sometimes, I get to see that lightbulb go off, that look in their eyes when they realize a new possibility for themselves. But I know that, in order to be a role model for women, I need not only to be perceived as intelligent and capable, but also as attractive. As much as women and girls want to see themselves as successful, intelligent, creative, and powerful–our media and our society tells them that none of that is worth anything if they aren’t also perfectly proportioned, conventionally beautiful, well-dressed and well-made-up, and appealing to the opposite sex. Even the most self-confident, critically-thinking young girl is taking that into account when she imagines her future and chooses her path and her mentors.

The pioneers in professions like mine had to, as Charlotte Whitton said, “do twice as well as men to be though of as half as good”. We now face a different challenge. We might be perceived as intelligent and capable, but as women, we walk a thin line between being attractive and being perceived as sexually provocative, between being assertive and being perceived as “bitchy,” being compassionate, thoughtful (and sometimes even vulnerable) and being perceived as weak. Appearance is only the tip of the iceberg of how women are still treated differently than men, and how these discrepancies have an undue influence on the careers we choose to pursue and the success we have in pursuing them.

When I first applied for a job as a senior rabbi, it was important for the congregation to know what I looked like. They didn’t tell me this: they just googled me, and proceeded to tell my supervisor, “She’s adorable!”

That comment just about tore me apart. I’ve never been called adorable in my life, and part of me was flattered. However, long before I even interviewed for the position, I knew one thing for sure: No one ever says, “our new senior rabbi” and “adorable” in the same sentence.

Go to see the film, sign the pledge. As local radio personality Frank Stasio said today in the panel: they’ll stop making this stuff if we stop buying it.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz is the associate rabbi at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC. Check out her blog for updates on the #tzitzitchallenge.