Next week, I will receive an honorary doctorate from my seminary, the Hebrew Union College. All graduates are awarded this honour upon completing 25 years in the active rabbinate (or, some say, upon surviving 25 years of the rabbinate).
This occasion has given me pause to reflect, not only upon my own growth and change as a rabbi, but upon the tremendous changes I have seen in Toronto over those years.
I arrived here in 1983, straight from my ordination, as the assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple. I was the only female rabbi in the whole country until 1986, when I left briefly for my own pulpit in Boston. I came back in 1991 to establish Kolel, and I’ve been here ever since. This is a different community than when I first came in 1983, that’s for sure.
In 1983, I was definitely an exotic specimen. People would come to Holy Blossom just to “see” a female rabbi. Reform Jews, proud of their liberalism, still politely “requested” that I not officiate at their family events. The Conservative synagogues didn’t know what to do with me, since their movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary had not yet begun to ordain its own female rabbis. (It actually started to do so later that very same year.) The Orthodox establishments waited quietly for the fad to pass, either for me to leave or for Kolel to fold.
I have some very fond memories of those days, and some very painful ones, too. At the floating singles congregation that I helped form together with a Conservative assistant rabbi, the months it “floated” to a Conservative shul, I was not allowed to ascend to the bimah to lead any part of the service. I was only allowed to read an English poem from the front row.
I think back on that now as I count among my friends and colleagues all the Conservative rabbis of this community, many of whom have invited me at one time or another in the past few years to give a guest sermon from their pulpits.
I think back on that now as I recall the wonderful Orthodox rabbis and teachers who have graced Kolel panels and classes with their learning and menschlichkeit. And I think about the day I was elected the first female president of the interdenominational Toronto Board of Rabbis. What a different welcome than in 1983!
Toronto has mellowed, and matured, and so have I. I still remember the words of my homiletics professor 25 years ago: “Your job as a rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s not an easy thing to do in a community known for its traditionalism and its old-fashioned sensitivities. Twenty-five years ago, that seemed to be part of my job description. In truth, I feel blessed that Toronto has been so patient with me, and stretched its own envelope so much. This city now has 12 – more than a minyan! – female rabbis whose voices are those of authority in the Toronto community.
If you had told me that back in 1983, I wouldn’t have believed it. Twenty-five years later, I share this honour from my seminary with the town I call home.