“Who’s that guy?” I asked my mom.
“He’s the rabbi,” she answered. I stared up at my mom, with a blank gaze on my face.
When I was eight years old, my family joined a synagogue for the first time.
Even before then, we always had a fairly strong sense of Jewish identify in our home – celebrating Shabbat every week at my grandparents’ house and observing Rosh Hashanah, Pesach and Chanukah together. From an early age, I was taught how to express the guttural ‘ch’ sound that permeates our people’s speech, and I have fond memories of helping my bubby place all of the items on the seder plate at Pesach, as I checked them off one-by-one in my own coloring book haggadah. The fact that my zaidy had given me The Big Book of Jewish Humor at a young age probably helped, too (or just made matters worse, according to my mother).
So I don’t recall struggling with any heavy questions about Judaism when my parents announced to my sister and I that we’d be joining a shul. They explained all about services, the rabbi, Hebrew school, and the like, and it all seemed fairly straightforward to me.
A few weeks later at the age of eight, I was shipped off to Hebrew school for the first time.
I was that rare breed of kid who actually enjoyed Hebrew school. Maybe it was partly because I was a dork, but I ascribe much of my thirst for Jewish knowledge to the inspirational education I received at the hands of my very first rabbi – Rabbi Nancy Wechsler (now Rabbi Wechsler-Azen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, CA).
She was a product of our URJ camps, played guitar and sang with a beautiful voice, and led worship and classes with warmth and inspiration.
She had that rare ability to make each of her young congregants truly feel that their connection with Judaism and with God was personally meaningful, important, and unique. She saw in each of us a holy spark to be nurtured as we travelled along on our Jewish journeys. On a weekly basis, she made us feel that being Jewish and coming to shul wasn’t a boring and burdensome task, but an exciting and meaningful part of our lives.
So when I looked up at my mom and asked her “Who’s that guy?” you can forgive me for not being even more confused.
I asked my mother that question at the age of nine while sitting in the pews of a synagogue that wasn’t our own. We were attending a friend’s Bar Mitzvah, and their congregation’s rabbi had just ascended the bima.
He… was a ‘he.’
“Men can be rabbis?!” I exclaimed.
I don’t recall my mother’s response, but she assures me that it was a mixture of hilarity, amusement, mild embarrassment and pride.
I had only known from Rabbi Wechsler, and assumed that all rabbis were women. I wouldn’t understand until years later that my then nine-year-old self had just wandered into one of the great issues of modern Judaism– women in the rabbinate and the role of women in Jewish life.
With the sudden realization that an entire new world was open to me as a male, I started pondering the possibility of a career as a professional Jew. At least that’s the version of events I tell myself today. I’m sure that nine-year-old Jesse just wanted the service to end as quickly as possible so we could get to the oneg.
But there is little doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t have stayed connected to my Judaism through high school, university and beyond, and wouldn’t today be a Jewish Professional if it wasn’t for the foundation Rabbi Wechlser-Azen laid two decades ago.
So while I learned that day that men can indeed be rabbis, I’m pretty thankful that women can be, too.
Jesse Paikin grew up at Temple Kol Ami in Thornhill, Ontario, and now lives in New York City where he works as the Israel & Masa Programs Coordinator at the Union for Reform Judaism. An alumnus of NFTY, URJ Kutz Camp, URJ Camp George and KESHER Taglit-Birthright Israel, Jesse is an avid lover of black coffee, good music, and the hidden fed-ex arrow. He also writes at http://jepaikin.wordpress.com