Ilana Garber: Rabbi-to-be learning to toughen her skin.

A Trick And A Treat

Elicia Brown – Special to the Jewish Week

I awoke with a jolt.

The press release I’d fished out of my junk folder proclaimed that The Jewish Theological Seminary would celebrate 20 years of women in the Conservative rabbinate with an “equity plan”: it would commit to equal pay for women rabbis, phase-out non-egalitarian synagogues, and welcome gay applicants to its rabbinical program.

Sequestered in a mommy-land of toothless giggles and preschooler pranks, I’d apparently missed the dawning of a new day for Conservative Jewry.

But even a non-caffeinated mother of two comes to her senses eventually. The spokeswoman at JTS seemed a bit on edge. “How do I know who this is?” she demanded. “I’m not familiar with your byline.” And later, more amenably, “Yes, the press release is a hoax,” not distributed by her office. (The next day the group Jewish Women Watching, which describes itself as an “anonymous collective of feminist rabble rousers,” took credit for the ruse.)

Call it a cruel joke or belated “Purim Torah,” but the faux release drew me in. The so-called equity plan, with its grand ambitions, was a fake. On the other hand, the anniversary of the movement ordaining women rabbis –– showcasing triumphs as well as troubles –– was real. I hopped in a cab to join the festivities.

And there, in a packed auditorium at JTS, were the women who make the Conservative movement a sometime home for me — the rabbi who introduced me to Yiddish women’s prayers, which I so often incorporate into my most tender and tense moments; the rabbi whose interpretation of Jewish law I trust most; the rabbi who advises me on simchat bat and brit milah.

Certainly, the common experience, alluded to by the speakers, and confirmed by a recent Rabbinical Assembly study, attests to daunting challenges faced by Conservative women rabbis, who lag behind men in pay and power.

But certainly also, there was cause for applause: “Francine, Francine you have company,” Rabbi Joel Roth told the roaring crowd. He learned that night that the board of directors of Congregation Beth Shalom of Oak Park, Mich., a congregation with more than 500 families, advised its congregation to begin negotiations with Rabbi Lynn Liberman. If all proceeds on course, she will become the second woman to fracture the stained glass ceiling. The first, Rabbi Francine Roston Green, was hired in March by Congregation Beth El in South Orange, N.J., which also has more than 500 families.

In the context of 5,000 years of Jewish history, women rabbis still seem like a novelty. At the close of the last century, a family member advised my then 5-year-old niece, Dina, to “ask the rabbi-lady” her question about my wedding ceremony. Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld didn’t blink.

Ilana Garber, 27, is learning to toughen her skin. Following Shacharit services the day after the anniversary program, Garber downed some coffee and a bagel at the JTS cafeteria. A fifth year rabbinical student, she says she has “what to tell you” about interviewing for a pulpit position.

At one Southwestern congregation the committee asked Garber, who is single, how she plans to work all week, lead Shabbat services and get Shabbat dinner on the table. Also, how could she “raise her eventual children?” One congregant also commented, “Don’t worry, you look good in tefillin.”

“I don’t even want to think about where his mind was,” said Garber, who has donned tefillin since her years at Barnard College, and wears a black kipa, embedded with pearls and silver embroidery.

Garber also says that it “insults her very essence that my classmates are revitalizing the Stein minyan,” an on-campus, nonegalitarian service, like those still found in 10 percent of Conservative synagogues. “There is not one clear message being sent by our movement.”

And yet, Garber’s optimism is such that, a decade from now, she hopes to hold a pulpit in one of the largest congregations.

As for the fake press release, Garber says that she and her peers are angry at the immature manner in which it was handled.

So, what did Jewish Women Watching hope to accomplish by sending the stealth e-mail? “We wanted to make the Conservative movement take responsibility for its rhetoric” about inclusiveness, about its values of equality, said a representative of the group, who identified herself only as Muriel Rukeyser, the name of a deceased poet.

“Rukeyser” also said that they chose to send it under the guise of JTS because, “We didn’t want it to be discussed as a particular concern of one group of people.”

“There was a minute or two when people actually considered this real. And then they realized how far off it was,” Rukeyser said.

To that, I say, Amen. But back in the three rooms of my Upper West Side apartment where I pass so many of my days, I find my children asleep, dark circles encasing my husband’s eyes. I’m wired, wild with the spirit of women rabbis. And to that I must say, for now at least, Dayenu.

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