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Gorman: A unicorn at the pulpit

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Rabbi Jennifer Gorman

My Christian colleagues often speak of being called as clergy. It’s not language with which Jews are entirely comfortable, but it’s language that I understand. Since high school – once I accepted my allergies to all things furred or feathered, so veterinary medicine was out – I have followed my second love.

I applied to Brandeis University for Judaic studies, but the sociology of the Jewish community drew me. I wanted to focus on people and society, not just details. Still, the rabbinate never occurred to me. Then, in my third year, sitting with friends while trying to discover our paths from liberal arts students to paying jobs, I talked about my love of Judaism and my desire to share it. A friend interrupted as I was speaking: “You should be a rabbi.”

In that moment, my path was clear, albeit uphill. It should have been obvious, but without any female role models, it simply had never occurred to me to become a rabbi.

When I began rabbinical school in 1990, women composed one-fifth of my class. My husband’s class just two years later was split down the middle. I knew upon entering the Jewish Theological Seminary that the rabbinate was still an unforged path for women. That notwithstanding, I consciously decided I would not stand on a soapbox. I planned to gain acceptance and respect by being a positive presence, not a thorn in someone’s side. Over time, I learned that being a rabbi stands you at a podium, and being a female rabbi positions that podium either in the centre of the crowd, or deliberately shunted to the side.

READ: GOLDSTEIN: HOW FAR WE’VE COME

Only after nearly two decades in the rabbinate did I realize that, more than choosing my rabbinate, my rabbinate chose me. Despite the fact that I never wanted to be a reformer, simply by being true to myself, I pushed open doors and removed walls. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that, although the Conservative movement has been ordaining women for 35 years, I am often the first Conservative female rabbi people meet. I am the first woman they see wearing tefillin, or even a tallit. And in that moment, I become their archetype for what a female rabbi is.

In many ways, this defined my rabbinate. I spent most of my early career in galut (exile) from my female rabbinic colleagues. Consequently, I all too often encountered people who doubted or demeaned me because I am a woman. I even lost a job due to my gender. But my career – and my marriage – have also led me to places where I am a unicorn, a unique and wondrous creature that draws people to her. There’s magic and contradiction in that.

When we moved to Toronto, it was a golden opportunity. Once again, I was breaking down walls, not only as the first Conservative female rabbi, but as part of a rabbinic couple. I began as the family educator at a not fully egalitarian Beth Tzedec. Later, with the shul now fully egalitarian, they asked me to serve as interim rabbi during their search for their new rabbinic team. I received invitations to speak in congregations where I could not even open the ark. I was, and still am, challenged by unspoken regional policies surrounding eidut (being a witness).

Yet, through all this, I get to influence and experience amazing changes surrounding women and the Jewish world.

Every rabbi’s rabbinate is unique. It’s rarely what you expect when you leave the seminary. Regardless of whether I wanted or planned to stand on the soapbox of women’s ordination, it came to me. It’s there every time someone refers to me as “the lady rabbi,” even when I am the only rabbi in the room – and yes, even after 23 years in the rabbinate, it still happens. In fact, it happened just a few weeks ago.

It’s sometimes frustrating or difficult, but that’s the call – to demonstrate that I am not the “lady rabbi.” I am the rabbi.

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Rabbi Jennifer Gorman is the
 executive director
 of MERCAZ-Canada and the Canadian Foundation for Masorti Judaism.