March 1968, Parshat Tzav: I decided that I want to be a rabbi. The only problem is, there were no female rabbis yet!
I had never seen a female rabbi, nor could I imagine one. I had seen women go up to the bimah in my synagogue to light Shabbat candles, but nothing more. I didn’t know even if women were allowed to be rabbis. I only knew that I wanted to be one.
I ascended to the bimah to deliver my dvar Torah and pushed aside the text the rabbi had prepared for me.
“Friends and family,” I began in a clear voice, “I would like you to know that today is not the end of my Jewish life. Indeed it is only the beginning. I have decided…”
I took a huge breath and forged ahead, “… that I wish to become a rabbi.”
The cantor began to cry. The president of the congregation literally fell off his chair. And the rabbi strode over to his podium, announcing, “Yes Elyse, that’s very sweet. But what you mean is you want to be a rebbetzin.” Since I was still standing at the cantor’s podium, which had a microphone, I leaned closely into it and intoned, “No. I mean I want to be a rabbi. My husband can be the rebbetzin.”
My mother was my role model. A deeply spiritual person, she worked all her adult life for the Reform Jewish movement in New York. Our Shabbat table was often graced with the most stimulating and active young Reform rabbis of their time. These rabbis and I had many heady discussions about all things critical to an impressionable teenager. We kept a kosher home and all the holidays were important to us. My family went to synagogue regularly and practised what they preached. I thought all Reform homes were like mine and had the same level of commitment. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this was not always the case. It made sense for me to go into the Reform rabbinate to replicate that commitment in others, to influence and lead other Jews to the richness I had inherited.
May 29, 1983: I walked down the aisle of Temple Emanuel in New York City and became a rabbi. Thirty years ago this month, my bat mitzvah dream came true. I don’t regret a single day of those 30 years.
My story must sound like ancient history to today’s confident, self-assured young Jewish women – the young women who wear tallitot in shul and chant Torah for their bat mitzvahs without a second thought. The girls who say, “I would like to be a rabbi,” and no one laughs at them or directs them to marry a rabbi instead must find these stories amusing.
But would that these lucky young Jewish women understand more profoundly the paths that have been blazed for them, the glass ceilings that have been shattered for them, and the changes that have occurred for them. There is an ease that pervades their Jewish lives, a privilege and a sense of “I can do and be anything I like in the Jewish world” that belies just how much more work there is to be done. And it is they who must take on that work.
I was a naive new young rabbi when I came to Toronto to serve as assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in 1983, fresh from seminary. Toronto wasn’t quite ready for me, but being a New Yorker, I didn’t give them much time! I am deeply grateful for my three years at Holy Blossom, my five years at Temple Beth David in Canton, Mass., and of course my 20 years back in Toronto at Kolel. And now I get to “reinvent” myself in my 30th year in the rabbinate.
It’s propitious that my personal anniversary coincides with City Shul’s one-year anniversary, because “everything old is new again.” Something is deeply right about Judaism, and if something is wrong we can fix it with our passion, dedication, and generosity of spirit. I’ve been building and fixing and breaking and rebuilding for 30 years, and I am deeply grateful to those who have stood by me through it all, joined hands with me, opened their hearts to Torah with me, celebrated and cried with me. “Thirty is for strength”(Pirkei Avot, 4:22).