Rooted and Stretching
Editor’s Note: This piece is excerpted from Rabbi Abrahmson’s keynote address at the 2013 WRJ Fried Leadership Conference.
by Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson
It has been a remarkable week for women. On Monday, the women’s restrooms in the United States Capitol happily boasted a line, thanks to the record-smashing 94 female House members needing to use it. In like fashion, 26 women will join Israel’s new parliament, a record-setting increase from 21 in the 18th Knesset. Among the new members, Pnina Tamano-Shata, Israel’s first female Ethiopian elected to Knesset and also Ruth Calderon, who established Alma, an egalitarian, liberal yeshiva in Tel Aviv.
On Tuesday, we marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a landmark decision to protect women’s reproductive rights. Though these rights continue to be challenged, 40 years – a number of note within Jewish tradition – reminds us to recommit to women’s health and to accessible birth control for all women who make that choice. Of far less significance but more discussed this week, Michelle Obama cut her bangs (a cut deemed insufficient by Republicans critics), and she appeared in a ball gown designed by, if you can believe the audacity of the woman, Jason Wu, the same guy she wore four years ago. My favorite commentary was by a CNN female reporter who remarked, “Perhaps she just likes the dress.”
Of course on Martin Luther King Day, when we pause to honor and celebrate Dr. King’s dream of equality, an African-American President took his second oath of office and in his inaugural address courageously asserted:
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began, for our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.
And he boldly stated:
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.
I immediately thought of this gathering when President Obama referenced The Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention to be organized in the Western world held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in the summer of 1848. Largely fueled by the vision of a group of radical Quaker women, the conference provided the spark to ignite the women’s suffrage movement. And here we gather, on a snowy winter’s erev Shabbat to celebrate a century of this organizations impressive and ongoing contributions to Reform Jewish life, to improving community, to social justice, to women’s opportunity, to meaningful and accessible Reform Jewish education, to vibrant synagogue youth groups, and to our precious URJ camps, a shining jewel in this movement’s crown. Mazal tov!
Today this esteemed organization’s executive director is a rabbi, a talented and knowledgeable Jewish woman ordained 27 years ago. It is my honor and pleasure to be here with all of you for many reasons, and one is that I am Rabbi Feldman’s classmate. We started our training in Jerusalem with your financial support and your longtime role-modeling of women’s leadership off and on the bimah. Between the two of us we have nearly (gulp) 55 years of rabbinic experience!
I know that in the coming hours you will reflect on the many remarkable milestones and achievements of which the Women of Reform Judaism – you – are so proud. At the same time, I wonder with optimism and anticipation, how will our conversations, our study, our prayer, our hallway realizations, our ah-ha moments, our visions and inspired directions inspire us for meaningful change that will, someday, be traced to this conference? In thinking about all of this, I remind you of the greeting card I have received enough times to know that I represent a bit of its truth and urge you to do the same: Well-behaved women seldom make history.
And there is no better time in history to be a Jewish woman. In a classic Talmudic tale, (Menachot 29b, Babylonian Talmud), God transports Moses forward in time to the study house of the renowned second-century sage, Rabbi Akiva. Moses sits at the back of the classroom and listens carefully to the day’s lesson. He is utterly confused and dismayed. He can’t understand the discussion, even though Rabbi Akiva and his students are discussing the Torah that Moses himself brought before the Israelites! As this story teaches, Rabbinic Judaism so revolutionized Jewish life that the rabbis themselves wondered if Moses could even understand the tradition attributed to to him.
Can we imagine how the 156 women who gathered in this city in 1913 to form the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods would respond to what they would hear and see in this very room and city tonight? I suspect they would experience a bit of spiritual shock; dizzying disbelief. I think they would pray the Shehecheyanu. We would turn around and thank them for creating the sparks that ignited a prolonged revolution in Jewish life. We would embrace them as our sisters who tenaciously provided the “ladies” a chair and then a permanent seat at the table of Reform Jewish life. We would express our gratitude to them for carving out a space where the voices of (politely) misbehaving women could be heard within congregations and by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. We would tearfully applaud them for generating opportunities for us to connect and network, to share both recipes and rigorous study, to learn and to legislate, to write music and midrash, to preach and to protest, to wear talitot and trousers, to teach Torah and to record our own published commentaries on the Torah. And then we would rush to invite them into our circle, hand them a timbrel and sing with unbridled joy, “We’ve just lived through [many] miracles, we’re going to dance tonight!”
Marking a significant birthday, we look ahead, we squint, as did our foremothers and fathers, beyond the shores of the known to what lies ahead. Let me frame it more directly: When we are, many, many years hence please God, the souls standing in the back of the WRJ gathering to be held here in Cincinnati in the year 2113, (in springtime I suggest) what will we see? For what will our granddaughters and great-granddaughters thank us? What fires will we have ignited to warm their Jewish homes and hearts? What will surprise us? What will be familiar and what foreign? What change will we have generated in this organization that will be fully realized in the next century? What work will we have to do to get there? Are we curious enough to change? Imaginative enough? Flexible enough? How ready are we? These are the questions being asked by the new leadership of the URJ, indeed being asked by thoughtful congregations across the denominations and by national Jewish organizations.
Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson is president of The Wexner Foundation and a member of the URJ Faculty of Expert Practitioners.