Event spotlights challenges, joys of Jewish women in the clergy

Lisa Mandel
A panel of seven St. Louis Jewish women in the clergy — five rabbis, one cantor and one maharat — take part in a panel discussion moderated by Ellen Sherberg, publisher of the St. Louis Business Journal (at left). Photo: Lisa Mandel 

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Rori Picker Neiss can’t say that she always aspired to her present title in life.

“This is something I never could have imagined growing up,” Neiss told a packed auditorium in the Jewish Community Center’s Arts and Education Building, “mostly because it didn’t really exist until about four years ago.”

Nonetheless, Neiss, director of programming, education and engagement at Bais Abraham Congregation (and a Light trustee), has reason to think of herself as a trailblazer. She is one of only five people in the nation holding the designation of maharat, a title for female spiritual leaders in the world of Orthodoxy, where women cannot be ordained as rabbis. She admits that her unique role is one that some may find disconcerting.

“That makes me uncomfortable because I like to think I’m not really that scary,” she laughed.

Neiss’ story was one of seven shared on the evening of Jan. 13 with hundreds of attendees who flocked to the Millstone campus to hear from a panel of local female clergy during an event held by Women’s Philanthropy — a division of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. 

Julie Gibbs, director of Women’s Philanthropy, said that the idea percolated in part from her own rabbi, Bridgette Rosenberg, of United Hebrew who had mentioned to her that at national conferences, the Gateway City is regarded as having a relatively high number of women in positions of Jewish spiritual leadership.

“St. Louis is known to have many female clergy sitting at the helm of congregations and we think that says a lot about St. Louis,” said Gibbs, who called last week’s gathering “historic.”

Participants, who included Neiss, five rabbis and a cantor, also answered questions from the audience, which covered everything from juggling family concerns to their feelings on recent events in France to whether they considered themselves feminists.

In a story tinged with both seriousness and humor, Neiss recalled years ago trying to pray at a synagogue where so few females attended services that the women’s section was usually populated by men. After being informed of the problem, shul leadership worked out a “compromise” with Neiss so when she was in town, they would lock the door to the women’s area and give her the key so men could not get in.

Yet, she could still hear someone jostling the knob while she was praying.

“I assume that everyone thought that someone just forgot to unlock the door,” she said, joking that it felt like her first act of protest. “Nobody knew I was in there.”

But there was also a less amusing side to the experience.

“I realized that I was the person who had locked the door. I went home and thought I don’t ever want to be that person again,” she said. “I don’t ever want to be the person locking someone else out of the space.”

Eventually, it was that impulse to open doors for others that led her to Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution in the country to ordain women as Orthodox clergy. In 2014, she became part of just the second class to graduate from the school. Six more women are enrolled in this year’s class.

“I’ll be very honest. If the group had jumped up and said, ‘We’re ordaining women to be rabbis,’ I wouldn’t have signed up. It was not something I’d grown up with,” Neiss said. “When they said, ‘We’re going to give women this training. We’re going to acknowledge that they have this capability and we’re going to give them a title that’s unique to them,’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll try this out.’”

Others on the panel had different stories of coming to positions of spiritual leadership.

“The year that I was ordained was the same year that Sally Priesand, who was the first female rabbi, retired,” said Rabbi Amy Feder of Temple Israel. “My classmates and I really looked at ourselves as the second generation of female rabbis. The truth is that it was not so hard for us because of all the women who came before. Because of them our path was relatively easy.”

Feder said she initially worried about whether she could live up to all her dreams of having time for both family and career if she took up the demanding life of the clergy but ultimately, it worked well. “Being a woman has enhanced my rabbinate,” she said. “Never once has it stood in my way. I look at this job as the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation recalled the time that someone complained to the late Chief Rabbi Sholom Rivkin about her. “He said, ‘Rabbi Talve brings women to the mikvah. Don’t tell me the details,’” she chuckled.

Talve said she was inspired by her own rabbi’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She invoked her thoughts on feeling unified with supporters of Mike Brown and the victims at Charlie Hebdo.

“This is pure Torah. Love the stranger so there will be no more stranger,” said Talve who noted that she now spends so much time in Ferguson she has to call to let her children know she’s gotten home safely from the troubled suburb. “Until we are all free, no one is free. Torah demands that we change the paradigm we see to change the world.”

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein said her own inspiration came from within.

“It was very easy for me to trust with all my heart that God was a part of my life and was close to me, protecting me,” said Goldstein of Congregation Shaare Emeth.

She remembered her childhood house of worship as a warm, safe environment. “I believed for a long, long time that the synagogue was a place where people showed the best of themselves,” she said.

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh of Temple Emanuel said she always loved Judaism and joked that she even missed out on ice skating lessons as a child because they conflicted with the times for religious school. “I didn’t want a profession that was a job,” she said. “I wanted to live the values that I believed in. Daily living as a rabbi was doing just that.”

She credited her involvement in NFTY with helping her to endure anti-Semitism as one of only a handful of Jews at her school in upstate New York. She said she liked how her rabbinate let her study, grow and interact with others.

“I tried to make my career not about my gender,” she said. “I’ve always believed that qualities were about the individual and not the gender.”

Rabbi Rosenberg said she knew she wanted to work in the synagogue while still a sophomore in high school. “Being a rabbi never seemed out of reach or out of the realm for me,” she said. “At my bat mitzvah, there was a female rabbi and a female cantor standing on the bimah along with a male senior rabbi.”

She also noted that during her spiritual training, she never shared her female classmates’ desire to enter the rabbinate merely to prove a point. “I didn’t even think about being a woman,” she said. “I just wanted to be a rabbi.”

Cantor Sharon Nathanson of Congregation B’nai Amoona said she always loved choir practice more than text study.

“That’s where I felt peaceful,” she said. “That’s where I felt I was contributing as well as learning. That’s where I felt most at home.”

She said that being a female cantor had had its interesting moments over the years.

“When I first began as a cantor at B’nai Amoona almost 12 years ago, there was a woman in her 90s, a lovely woman who I had great affection for. On Shabbat at the kiddush, she would come up and grasp my hands and with great passion say to me, ‘I never thought I’d like a woman cantor but I just love you,’” she laughed. “I always admired her ability to overcome her notion of what she thought she’d like.” 

Attendee Emily Stein MacDonald called the gathering “inspiring.”

“I loved that they all spoke about the wonderful support they received from their family,” she said. “There is the support of the congregations but they have supportive families at home that make their success possible.”

Dee Mogerman, president of Temple Israel, said she felt it was rewarding to hear each woman’s story. 

“We should celebrate these women,” she said. “It is just so wonderful that our community accepts them, that they are here and lead our religious life.”

Gibbs said she didn’t yet know whether the event will be held again but her group has sent out a survey to gauge response.

“My guess is that it was so well received we’ll probably do it again at some point in the future,” she said. “Certainly, people thoroughly enjoyed seeing all the clergy together and how they interacted and told their stories.”

The free event was chaired by Barbara Langsam Shuman. Women’s Philanthropy is co-chaired by Vicki Singer and Dr. Sherry Shuman.