In My Own Words: Looking back on my rabbinate

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I never had a bat mitzvah. In fact, I’m a Hebrew school dropout. I have led services, read Torah and taught an adult b’nai mitzvah class, all without calling attention to that fact. Oh, and I graduated from rabbinical school too. I had thought of leading a Shabbat morning service as a kind of bat mitzvah (without calling it that) when my 60th birthday fell on a Saturday, but I was arranging to have my cochlear implant that fall and was too overwhelmed to do both.

The reason I bring this up is that last month was the 100th anniversary of the first bat mitzvah and someone e-mailed me a suggestion: maybe it would be interesting if I wrote about being a woman rabbi. After debating the thought, I decided to write this column if only to show people how lucky my rabbinate has been.

First, Temple Beth El of Endicott – the congregation I belonged to in the 1980s before the thought of rabbinical school ever crossed my mind – welcomed my full participation once it became a Reconstructionist synagogue. The synagogue closed in 1992, but I was reminded of those years recently when I did a funeral for someone who was a member then. I know things tend to glow in our memories, but the opposite usually occurs with me (it’s easier for me to remember the bad than the good), so my fond memories are probably closer to the truth. What matters is that I felt I had an extended group of people rooting for me to become a rabbi. 

I’ve managed to avoid some of the problems I’ve heard other women rabbis discuss. Or maybe I’m just lucky that I can’t overhear what people are saying unless they’re talking directly to me. I know one rabbi who started wearing pants because she got tired of hearing people discuss her legs. I know another who noted that some congregants acted as if she were their mother and acted like teenagers ready to dismiss anything she said. Countless others have complained about the far too many discussions that have occurred about their clothing and shoes and choice of jewelry and.... you get the idea. Perhaps men have similar problems, but I doubt it, unless their congregants are concerned about them dressing too casually. 

My path was helped in a variety of ways. Take my rabbinic work experiences when I was in school: the rabbinic supervisor at the geriatric center I worked at was a woman. The synagogue where I rotated services with two other rabbis had had decades of women rabbis. The beloved rabbi at the Reconstructionist congregation I joined when I was in rabbinical school was a woman.

I also was very lucky when I moved back to Broome County. I was the first woman rabbi living in the area. Rabbi Lance Sussman, whom I knew when he was a part-time rabbi at Temple Beth El, began getting me involved in Temple Concord when I was still in school. He welcomed me with open arms and made it clear that I was to be accepted. In fact, he once told me that he said I was equal to any rabbi in the area. His seal of approval made a big difference in my life and I will always be grateful for his welcome and friendship.

At a time when the Modern Orthodox movement is appointing women halachic (legal) experts and a generation of children in the liberal movement has grown up with women rabbis, this may not seem a big deal, but, at the time, it made a big difference. However, there still are problems: too few women are being given an opportunity to become senior rabbis in large synagogues. Some people still don’t take female rabbis as seriously as they do male ones. There are congregations who offer women a lower salary than men. The hope is that that will change. But I don’t want to ignore the good that has occurred. In fact, from my role as a congregant in several synagogues whose rabbis were women, I can testify to the many ways they have enriched Judaism and Jewish practice.