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Goldstein: How far we’ve come

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Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

In 1983, I applied for my first rabbinic position after ordination: assistant rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, one of the largest synagogues in North America and the job that everyone in my class was after.

I wouldn’t technically be the first female rabbi in Canada, because Rabbi Joni Friedman had actually been at Holy Blossom three years before, but for various reasons, she left shortly after.

The interview room was huge. In the middle of the room was a long, wooden table occupied almost exclusively by men in tailored suits (save for the youth group president and the sisterhood president). Max Enkin, senior patriarch, sat at the very end.

Here’s how it went: one man began to talk about how uncomfortable the brotherhood was with Rabbi Friedman, and wouldn’t let me finish a sentence of my own ideas. The next went on about how much Rabbi Friedman enjoyed working with youth, and then didn’t ask me a single question. Another man asked if I would do the same seniors programming as Rabbi Friedman did. The interview was sinking.

Suddenly, from his seat, Enkin rose, cleared his throat and said with full authority: “Now that we’ve finished interviewing the very absent Rabbi Friedman, why don’t we start interviewing the very present Rabbi Goldstein?”

Yes, I got the job. From 1983 to 1986, I worked with Rabbi Dow Marmur and Rabbi Gunther Plaut. Both of them stood up for every feminist initiative I offered and every women’s issue I raised – even when they caused raised eyebrows among their colleagues.

READ: TORONTO WELCOMES TWO NEW FEMALE RABBIS

When I was next in line for the position of president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, the Orthodox members mysteriously had to go the washroom when the ballots were being cast. For two years, I was the only female rabbi in all of Canada.

I was an oddity, to be sure. People would come to the synagogue just to see the “lady rabbi.” I was invited to synagogues all over the country to speak, but was not allowed to receive an aliyah at many of them. I had to bless the bat mitzvah daughter of close family friends at the kiddush, rather than from the bimah at her service. People would request “the lady rabbi” for a wedding or funeral because they knew it would irk their religious cousins (or they would request to “not have the female rabbi” for their son’s bar mitzvah, so as not to irk their religious cousins).

Being single at the time, I was set up with everyone’s nephew and brother and I would hear horror stories about how they would go into work the next day and say, “You’ll never guess what I dated last night! A woman rabbi!” – what, not who.

But that was then, this is now. Most Conservative synagogues in Toronto where I could speak only on sisterhood Shabbat are now egalitarian. Most Orthodox synagogues have bat mitzvahs in one form or another. I have worn my tallit in Orthodox shuls and not been given any hassle. I taught high-level text for many years with several Orthodox men in my classes, because they “wanted to learn the feminist perspective.”

The shul I founded in 2011 has male and female hazzanim, male and female Torah readers, male and female gabbais – and those who identify as non-binary or trans – and if a few people still notice the gender expression of their prayer leaders, they are definitely in the minority.

If you had told me in 1983 that I would sit on a panel with an Orthodox-ordained woman whose community calls her rabbi, I would never have believed it. But I do today, with full faith, for my own eyes see how much has changed. When you are pushing an iceberg, you cannot see how far it has moved until you step back and view it from the shore. I am so blessed and grateful to have lived to see these days.
Shehecheyanu.

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