By Elizabeth Levi, NFTY Southern Area Region, Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, SC
This essay is the winner of Women of Reform Judaism’s Centennial Essay Competition. Women of Reform Judaism established this essay contest in honor of their Centennial celebration. Teens were asked to write about the influence of women’s leadership in Reform congregations.
I cried when I found out our new rabbi was going to be a woman. I was in ninth grade and did not like the thought of change. She would change all of our congregation’s traditions. She would not have the same endearing voice as our previous male rabbi. She must be weird – what kind of woman would want to be a rabbi, anyway? Four years later, the woman I loathed in one moment would be the same woman I strive to be like every day. She would be the woman who helped shape my Judaism, my leadership abilities, and myself as an individual. She would become one of my friends – someone I texted every so often, someone who helped me through life’s difficulties, someone I cared for as if she were family. Four years later, that woman would change not only my life but my whole congregation in ways no one could anticipate.
My congregation prides itself on being “the oldest Reform Jewish synagogue in continuous use in the United States.” In other words, we like tradition, we love our sanctuary, and we are all one big family. Our previous rabbi had served our congregation since 1992. He was the only rabbi I had ever known, and thus, the only one I really cared for. When he retired, I was not too keen to see a big change; I expected our congregation to choose another man very similar to the rabbi I had grown up with – one a little older, liberal in his religion, and completely open-minded. The rabbi they chose did not quite meet my criteria.
Our new rabbi was a woman in her mid-30s. Her sermons had me hanging on to every word she spoke. She was more traditional in her religious practices than our previous rabbi, yet similar in her open-mindedness. She brought new traditions to our temple – ones that were not weird or unwanted, but rather ones that improved our community and our Judaism. She began to lead our congregation using her strong vocals to spice up a service and making sports analogies in many of her sermons. She wore a kippah, white robes, and tallis to keep humble, yet demand the respect any man would receive on the bimah. She proved herself worthy of our community’s love within the first two months of her arrival. Now, she has become part of the foundation of our community. I cannot imagine our synagogue without her vital presence.
Growing up with a gentile mother, my synagogue has played a leading role in my Judaism. Thus, before our female rabbi came along, the main Jewish woman in my life was our temple songleader. She taught me Jewish songs, prayers, traditions and values. I looked up to her. She was the Jewish mother I wanted to become. She was the spirit that allowed me to enjoy my Judaism. She was the inspiration that made me a Jew.
As I became a teenager, she became the temple’s youth group advisor. In tenth grade, I was elected the youth group’s Religious and Cultural Vice President – a job that entails creating services for youth events. In the beginning, I had no idea what I was doing. But luckily, I had a loving advisor to teach me. She knew everything about a service: she helped me put it together, inspired me to be original, and provided me with the tools necessary to succeed without her assistance. Over the course of two years, I would find myself leading services for our youth and our community. Learning from both my advisor and my rabbi, I would be the one giving sermons on the bimah – I would be the woman leading our temple’s worship.
Now, I realize my congregation relies heavily on the leadership of women. Our b’nei mitzvah coordinator is a woman, our temple educator is a woman, our rabbi, our youth advisor, and our music coordinator all are women. These women are the foundations of my community. They are the ones who have influenced not only my Judaism, but the Judaism of the rest of our temple youth. They are the people providing our community with love, strength, and spirituality. They are the ones instilling Jewish values in our youth, our congregation, and our entire community. The women leading my synagogue are the core of our temple. They are the ones who push us toward new directions, yet refuse to let us forget the lessons of our past. These women play a vital part in not only the continuation of my congregation, but of Judaism as a whole. Without them, the Judaism I know and love would not be possible.
I am thankful for the women leaders in my community, because now I am one of them. As the president of my youth group, it is my responsibility to instill in the group the values these women have instilled in me. It is my responsibility to inspire, to teach, to love the way I was taught by the women of my community.
It’s funny to think that four years ago I was upset by the thought of a woman rabbi. But why did I doubt this woman’s ability to lead a community? Why did I doubt her abilities to teach Torah, to serve as a role model, to guide our community’s spirituality? Maybe it was because of ignorance or fear of change. Maybe it was because I doubted myself.
I now know that the women of my community are part of its strength. I take pride in these women – in their leadership abilities, their spirituality, and their open-mindedness. And I hope that one day, I, too, will be able to inspire people as these women have inspired me.