Female rabbis crack the stained glass ceiling

Does appointment of Yael Splansky and Angela Buchdahl to top positions at prestigious synagogues signal sea change?

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Yael Splansky is the new senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. (Mark Blinch)
Yael Splansky is the new senior rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. (Mark Blinch)

Since she became senior rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple, a number of people have challenged Rabbi Yael Splansky on whether she will be able to project the same kind of gravitas as an older, male figure.

“I will grow older, but I will never grow a beard,” responds Splansky, who was appointed last April to Toronto’s oldest and most prestigious congregation, as well as one of North America’s largest Reform synagogues.

Facial hair notwithstanding, there arises the question as to whether Splansky’s ascendancy, along with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl‘s appointment this year to the senior rabbi position at New York’s venerable Central Synagogue, signals a shift in how female clergy are viewed by synagogue boards.

Have we arrived at the end of gender bias, 42 years after Sally Priesand became the first American woman to receive rabbinical ordination (by the Reform movement) and almost three decades after Amy Eilberg became the first female Conservative rabbi?

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld delivers a psalm at the presidential inaugural service at the National Cathedral. (Ron Kampeas/JTA)
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (Ron Kampeas/JTA)

Do young female rabbinical students, who today constitute around half of the enrollment at Reform and Conservative seminaries, see fewer obstacles on the path to their eventually leading large congregations?

Those who have their finger on the pulse of Jewish feminism are pleased by Splansky and Buchdahl’s appointments, but not surprised by them.

“It is really a historic moment. But in general, we are seeing a steady increase in the normalization of women serving as lead rabbis of congregations of substantial size and influence,” says Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“I’m delighted, but not shocked by these developments,” concurs Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, director of the school of rabbinic studies at the Los Angeles campus of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. “While these two appointments are to highly significant congregations, women have been in the senior rabbi positions at a number of large congregations around the country for some time now.”

Splansky, who is a fourth generation Reform rabbi (her great-grandfather was a friend and classmate of Leo Baeck, the last leader of Germany’s Jewish community under the Nazi regime), had not originally aspired to the senior position at Holy Blossom.

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (courtesy)
Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (courtesy)

The Boston-raised Splansky, 43, served Holy Blossom for 16 years before her recent appointment. She started out as an assistant rabbi, and then served as the associate rabbi for 14 years.“But when there was a change in the leadership structure, I decided to take it on because I really love this place,” she tells The Times of Israel by phone from Toronto.

Similarly, Buchdahl, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was Central Synagogue’s senior cantor for eight years before becoming senior rabbi. She is the first Asian American to be ordained as a cantor or a rabbi.

According to Splansky, some congregants among Holy Blossom’s 1,750 member households viewed her appointment through a prism of egalitarianism, liberalism and feminism.

“Others didn’t think it was about gender. They told me, ‘It’s about you,’” she says.

“Older women who care very much about me and my family privately asked me if I was sure I wanted this,” Splansky shares. “They were coming from a place of love and concern for me.”

Rabbi Yael Splansky and her husband Adam Sol on a trip to Jerusalem with their three young sons. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Yael Splansky and her husband Adam Sol on a trip to Jerusalem with their three young sons. (Courtesy)

Nonetheless, the rabbi, a mother of three boys ages 7, 10 and 13, wondered whether the women would have asked this had she been a man.

“My husband [poet and literature professor Adam Sol] was actually a bit insulted by these inquiries. He plays a leading role in our family and in raising our kids, and it was like his commitment was being questioned.”

Schonfeld reports that in rabbinic families, partners tend to equitably share household and child-raising responsibilities. “There is a high level of household collaboration,” she says.

‘We don’t want gender conversations to be divisive in a congregation’

Nonetheless, some biases against women remain, especially assumptions that the work-life balancing act could diminish a female rabbi’s dedication to her congregants’ needs.

“Rabbi Splansky and Rabbi Buchdahl are both exceptional and exceptionally qualified, and their synagogues were ready for them to assume the senior rabbi position. But woman rabbis don’t aways get the top job,” says Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Schonfeld says her organization works with congregations, particularly large ones, to actively identify and address gender issues that come up in the process of hiring a new rabbi.

“Gender has become less of an issue, but it is still an issue. It hasn’t gone away by any stretch of the imagination,” she says. “We don’t want gender conversations to be divisive in a congregation.”

According to Weisberg, women’s ascension to senior rabbinical positions has allowed male rabbis to dare speak up in job interviews about their need to find a healthy balance between the pulpit and family life.

“Young women are feeling more comfortable negotiating maternity leave, but it is still somewhat risky for men to bring up a request for paternity leave,” she says. “These are family issues, not women’s issues.”

Rabbi Felicia Sol playing with her children. (Courtesy of Diva Communications, Inc.)
Rabbi Felicia Sol playing with her children. (Courtesy of Diva Communications, Inc.)

Splansky herself was a young, newly married woman fresh out of rabbinical school when she arrived at Holy Blossom. As senior rabbi, Splansky has had to reintroduce herself to her congregation. Much has happened over the past 16 years.

“They’ve seen me go through a kaleidoscope of experiences over years of growth,” she says.

She understands congregants’ concerns about gravitas, but she doesn’t think the quality is derived from testosterone levels. The way she sees it, when it comes to gravitas, a rabbi has to walk the walk.

“You have to show it, not just talk about it,” she says. “You have to give knock-out sermons, teach at the universities, write articles and play a role on the national rabbinical scene with the CCAR. You also have to be a successful fundraiser, which I have been.”

‘You have to show it, not just talk about it’

On the other hand, she believes the compassion and warmth (qualities she says are not exclusively feminine) she brings to her work as senior rabbi should not be diminished.

While many female rabbinical students and newly minted rabbis have been interested lately in jobs in smaller congregations, education, and social justice organizations, there are still some who aspire to senior congregational positions.

“I’m not saying that the stained glass ceiling doesn’t exist, but in general, discrimination is not a hot topic of discussion among our female students,” reports Rabbi Shirley Idelson, Dean of Hebrew Union College in New York.

Buchdahl and Splansky are only two of a growing number of female rabbis who are showing that leading a large congregation can be done. However, their particularly high-visibility positions are critical to inspiring the next generation of female clergy.

“After all, you can’t be what you can’t see,” Ellenson says.

“We live in a world where gender is in many ways still an issue,” says Weisberg. “When there are women in high profile jobs, it says to young people — men and women — that they can do these things.”

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