MONTREAL — Cantor Heather Batchelor remembers the time when, as a cantorial student, she replaced an ailing chazzan at a Conservative synagogue in the United States.
“A woman, a macher in the congregation, came up to me and said, ‘I just have to ask you something,’” Batchelor recalled, prepared for a query like “Why’s a nice girl in a job like this?”
But the woman continued, “Are you like a Size 2?”
It’s not a question Batchelor imagines any male cantor would get. The petite Batchelor, who has been cantor at the Reconstructionist Congregation Dorshei Emet since 2010, was on a panel of female Montreal Jewish clergy during Le Mood: The Festival of Unexpected Jewish Learning, Arts and Culture, sponsored by Federation CJA on Oct. 14.
It was facetiously – although not without the ring of truth – titled “Excuse me, Miss… I mean Rabbi.”
At Dorshei Emet, “one of the most progressive congregations in Montreal,” Batchelor was surprised when two congregants separately commented after her return from a cantorial assembly that she must have been the only woman there.
The fact is the majority of those at cantorial school when she went were women. Batchelor was joined on the panel by three clergy from Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom: Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, who was officially installed on Oct. 19 as senior rabbi, the first female to hold the post at the 1,000-member Reform congregation, her wife, Rabbi Andrea Myers, and cantorial soloist Rachelle Shubert, as well as Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, rabbi of the new B’nai Or Community Shul, affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement.
The fifth scheduled panellist, the temple’s outreach rabbi, Julia Appel, cancelled because she had just given birth.
Though women have been ordained in the Reform movement since 1972 and in the Reconstructionist since 1974, the Montreal Jewish community still seems to find female clergy an anomaly, the panellists concurred.
The Ottawa-born, Toronto-raised Rabbi Grushcow said that in New York, where she served a large congregation for a decade, female rabbis, even lesbian rabbis, were no big deal, but she is learning that is not the case here.
“Few say to me [directly] that it is an issue. They will ask, ‘How are people reacting? It’s a very traditional community, you know.’” The temple’s hiring her is remarkable in the wider context, she thinks, because female rabbis still face a “glass ceiling.”
“In the United States, at least, women tend to be hired as assistant or associate rabbis who often work with kids, but few are senior rabbis at a large congregation…,” Rabbi Grushcow said. “Most, even the most liberal, still want a father figure… A woman senior rabbi requires people to stretch their imaginations.” Batchelor added that congregations avoid “too many women” – if they already have a female assistant, they will usually not consider a female for the senior role.
Rabbi Grushcow appreciates the argument for diversity, whether of gender or of age, in a congregation’s clergy, but, “at the end of the day, who is good has to trump gender.”
Rabbi Gilbert noted that, although she is an ordained chaplain in her movement, in Montreal she cannot work in a hospital or other institution because the “policy” is that these chaplains must be Orthodox.
Rabbi Grushcow said sometimes, as a female, she has been specifically called upon to officiate at funerals – for example, when the deceased was a feminist or had an issue with the Jewish religion. Rabbi Myers, a Long Island, N.Y., native who grew up Christian, stressed that the rabbinate is a calling for her. “I can’t be anything but what I am… It’s what I was meant to do.”
She is happy to be both a rebbetzin and a rabbi.
Rabbi Myers finds Montreal generally “so European. I love its diversity and pluralism. You can be who you are.”
The couple believes the fact that they are mothers – of two girls – “resonates” with other parents.
When they see her in casual clothes, sitting on the floor at her children’s school, Rabbi Grushcow said, “People do a double-take, they say, ‘You don’t look like a rabbi,’ but it opens things up.”
The maternal image can be a double-edged sword, Batchelor suggested. She has known female clergy who have not been hired by congregations because they were not good with children, while there is usually not the same expectation for men.
Shubert regrets the lack of understanding of liberal Judaism in the Montreal Jewish community. She often encounters Jews who feel they must remain in the same denomination as their parents, even if they do not care for it. When they do attend a service at the temple, they usually enjoy it, including hearing women lead it, she said.
Batchelor, a Minneapolis native, said Montreal’s Jewish community is “like going back 30 years,” compared to the United States. While this has positive aspects, “there is a question of how the community can grow more inclusive, more broad-minded.”
Some of the “nastiest” response to her being a cantor has come from women, she said, even if they are not especially observant in the traditional sense.
Asked if more traditional women find her “liberating or threatening,” Rabbi Grushcow replied yes to both.
She also feels she can serve the spiritual needs of male congregants.
“There’s not a men’s and a women’s Judaism,” she said. While she knows she is a role model for girls – one she wishes she had had growing up in Toronto – “I am just as responsible to the boys. I need to be their rabbi as much. It’s a balancing act.”
Rabbi Gilbert said her shul, which is based at the Snowdon YM-YWHA, is attracting not only the unaffiliated or disenchanted, but also some Orthodox, including men. “They have not had the experience of a nurturing rabbi,” she said.
Montreal should soon have another female Jewish clergy member, it was noted, this time within modern Orthodoxy. Abby Brown Scheier is a student in the inaugural program at Yeshivat Maharat in New York, the first institution to train Orthodox women to be spiritual and halachic leaders. That class is scheduled to graduate next year.
Rabbi Myers welcomes the new “rabbahs,” the title they are expected to have. “We’re all in the same boat. The Jewish world is big enough for all of us.”
She just hopes they will call her rabbi.
Organizers said about 900 people, mostly young adults, participated in the second annual Le Mood, held at Espace Réunion, a former factory in Mile End.
The 12-hour event was billed as “Not your bubby’s Judaism.” The goal was to provide an alternative look at Jewish life from a multitude of viewpoints and to be inclusive of all segments of the community.