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Appel: Breaking the rabbinical mould

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Rabbi Julia Appel

One of the more painful moments in my early rabbinic career was when I introduced myself to a four-year-old boy.

“Hi! Nice to meet you!” I said, “I’m Rabbi Appel!” I gave him a big smile.

“You’re the rabbi?” he replied.

“Yep!”

He looked puzzled, and then, without missing a beat, said, “But where’s the real rabbi?”

“I am the real rabbi,” I mustered, but by then he’d lost interest. I guess I couldn’t blame him. Every Jewish children’s book in my own home, except one, portrays the rabbi as an old bearded man in a suit. My senior rabbi at the time was a man 40 years my senior, in a suit.

Growing up, my matriarchal extended family stressed women’s agency and equality. I don’t remember the first woman rabbi I met, because it wasn’t notable. In my path of Jewish exploration and ultimately rabbinic training, I had amazing female rabbi role models. I had already been a student rabbi in a Hillel, a nursing home and a congregation – all settings that were led by female rabbis.

And now, finally a full, ordained rabbi, my experience in the rabbinate was shaking me. I was a young woman in my late 20s, an age and gender whose authority is discounted in pretty much all areas of adult life. I found myself the only woman at every board of rabbis meeting; the only female rabbi employed full time by a congregation in the whole city; the first female rabbi many people had ever met. A beloved colleague of mine somehow introduced me to his congregation as “the youngest and certainly prettiest rabbi in town,” which wasn’t really how I wanted to be known.

When people expressed surprise that I was the rabbi, I started to joke that I was working on my beard.

In some ways, I did start working on that beard.

I started wearing a kippah all the time at work, like a clerical collar, even though, in the rest of my life, I only wore it during prayer. I bought a wardrobe full of beige and grey suits and slacks that I hated, and I wore my hair pinned up, to downplay my feminine red waves. I tried to speak more formally and generically, instead of smiling or joking – what I now call “rabbi voice.” I felt like I was portraying a role instead of being myself.

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After my first year in the rabbinate, I gave birth to my daughter. Becoming a mother to this tiny creature demanded my authentic self. The dry-clean section of my closet receded from memory, replaced by leggings and stretchable tops. I got to know the city as a person, not just as an assistant rabbi.

When I started my next job a year later, I wasn’t prepared to put on a costume again. I bought a work wardrobe of dresses and leggings I actually liked wearing (with high black dress boots for the snow). I felt able to share more of myself with my congregants. I brought my toddler to services and put her down for a nap in a portable crib in my office. I tried to release the normative images of authority that even I carried, and I put faith in the idea that my true self was the foundation of my authority.

Today, I’m known for my humour and approachability. The university students I work with at Hillel are drawn to me, I would venture, because they sense that I’m not faking it. I may be the first female rabbi they’ve met, but perhaps more notable to them is that I’m the first rabbi they’ve met who wears hipster glasses, replies to their social media posts with jokes and sings in a band.

I’ve been known to shed a tear during a devar Torah, and you’re more likely to find me in jeans and huge earrings than a suit. My calling card as a rabbi these days is precisely about not being the rabbi you were expecting – and that’s a good thing. Maybe I’m finally “the real rabbi.”

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Rabbi Julia Appel is the senior Jewish educator and campus rabbi at the University of Toronto Hillel.