Lessons From A Jewish Panel

I had the privilege of sitting on a panel this week in honor of a dear rabbinic colleague and friend’s twenty-fifth anniversary at his synagogue.  I posted the flyer created by the synagogue on my social media accounts the evening before the event, and the feedback I received was not what I expected, although I probably should have.

I was not the only person who posted the flyer. A friend who travels in more ‘traditional’ circles posted the flyer and received the following comments: “Great way to celebrate!” “Amazing panel with great communal rabbis!” “Great event of relationships that never could happen in most other communities throughout United States!” What the last comment referred to was that fact that we had rabbis from the major denominations of Judaism on the panel: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Chabad. And that comment was spot on, as one of the panelists noted, “in some communities, an Orthodox rabbi would be taken to task for publicly speaking with a rabbi from the progressive streams of Judaism.” We talked about the value of diversity and how we all learn from each other.

However, something was missing: female voices or as we call it in Hebrew, Kol Isha. The panel was made up of senior rabbis of their congregations throughout the city, and unfortunately, there are no senior female rabbis in those types of positions in our city (although there are some in South Florida). The honoree noted this fact at the beginning of the discussion and said that congregations should look in the mirror and ask tough questions as to our current reality.

My social media page looked a lot different than my Orthodox colleague who posted the same picture: “I can’t help asking if it is a little strange that the entire panel is male?” “These optics look bad, where are the women?” I explained the situation and quoted the rabbi who planned the event, and that not every panel is unique in its presentation and goal. The rabbi had a panel the week before with both male and female rabbis, one female rabbi who flew in for the event, and that this discussion was specifically for senior rabbis in the city. Furthermore, this rabbi has, for years, been a voice for equality and egalitarianism. I explained that I was not the organizer of the panel, nor do I work for the congregation that hosted the panel, I was a mere participant, but the question I asked myself internally was, what is my responsibility as a participant? I then spoke privately to many of the female clergy who posted questions on my page, many of whom I have known for years, to hear their thoughts about the issue of panels in Jewish communal spaces in general, and also how women are treated as clergy, especially in South Florida. I was not surprised by the stories, but nevertheless, was extremely disappointed. A female cantor who served in South Florida years ago confessed that ‘egalitarian’ congregations in our area told her flat out: “we don’t hire female cantors.”

I was reminded of a panel that I was asked to be on after just being in the community for a couple of years. It was a ‘Ted Talk’ like event where community rabbis gave a ten-minute ‘sermonette’ sponsored by our local Federation. The picture came up on my ‘feed’ today and I was reminded of the reality: all men, even though there were female rabbis in the city.

I know that there is a lot of anger around this issue, and as I learned, we must be open to hearing these frustrating and hurtful experiences, but the next question is: what should be our responsibility as male participants on panels? Some articles have been published on this very subject. Some say men should boycott any panels without women on them; some say you should work from within to ensure that female panelists are invited, but not boycott panels. As I stated before, every panel has its own unique challenges and goals. As one of my Facebook friends commented: “Of course, context matters. And in 2019 you know you are going to get this reaction, especially on social media where first optics and gut reactions are the norm over meaningful inquiry.” Alas, there might be some panels where only one gender could (or should) be represented, but this should be the exception and not the norm.

The benefit of insisting on a more egalitarian presentation is that the people can see women in a different light and begin to change their perceptions of female clergy. The Boca Raton Jewish community is truly unique. Our community rabbis actually get along with each other, and it is not just window dressing. We have traveled to Israel and Europe together, spending hours together on buses chatting; we attend each other’s events and interact warmly at community gatherings. Rabbis from all denominations sit together four times a year at our Federation to respectfully discuss the issues of the day in our county. We have been acknowledged internationally when our community rabbis and Federation accepted the Jerusalem Prize. I also believe our area has made great strides regarding the inclusion of female clergy.  Nevertheless, we still have work to do when it comes to true inclusion and diversity.

As the days wore on, I saw some of my friends still posting the same question: “where are the women?” Although it was a redundant question and I thought about deleting them, I have kept them up on my page as a reminder to us all. I hope we allow for this question and others to appear on our own ‘internal’ feeds, on social media and in our hearts and minds. I have learned a valuable lesson through this experience, and I hope others have as well. I hope we come to a day when we never have to ask the question, “where are the clergy women?” in our Jewish communal spaces.

About the Author
David Baum serves as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, a small (but mighty) Conservative Kehillah (community) in Boca Raton, Florida, sits on the Rabbinical Assembly Social Justice Commission, former president of the Southeast Region of the Rabbinical Assembly and Palm Beach County Board of Rabbis.
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