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On Titles and Towers: Striving Towards Gender Equality

Rabbi Sarah Marion
December 18, 2020
“On Titles and Towers:  Striving Towards Gender Equality”

In June of 1972, Rabbi Sally Priesand became the first woman in America to earn rabbinic ordination. In 1968, she joined an all-male class of rabbis to be, and began rabbinic school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion – also known as “HUC” – which is the Reform seminary that Rabbi Schultz, Cantor Rubel and I all attended. Looking back on her groundbreaking years at HUC, Rabbi Priesand recalls classmates and teachers who thought that her quest to become a rabbi was a “passing fancy;” and she remembers congregations who refused to accept her as a student rabbi in their pulpits.[1]

48 years later, from Rabbi Priesand’s early experiences, and we’ve certainly come a long way. And, yet, at the same time, 48 years later… we still have a ways yet to go.

At the Union for Reform Judaism’s Biennial conference last year, I was invited to be an actor in a production called “The Clergy Monologues,” which was an original play based on real-life experiences of female rabbis and cantors. In the weeks that led to the production, women who serve as Reform rabbis and cantors were invited to submit recent stories of sexism and gender inequality. From the hundreds of stories that were submitted, the play writers took about a dozen of them and wove them together, turning them into a series of “monologues” that were performed for an audience.

Here is a line from one of the hundreds of stories that were collected: “I once spoke on an interfaith panel…” after I answered one of the questions, a male colleague leaned over and said: “wow, it seems like you actually know what you are talking about!”

And here is another: “I recently officiated at a funeral. After the service, a man came up to me and said: ‘That was a lovely eulogy, Mrs. Goldstein!’ I thanked him, and pointed out that I am actually Rabbi Goldstein. The next day he sent me an email explaining that he meant no disrespect, and that the title “Mrs.” is the highest honor one can give to a woman.”

And another: “In my first year of my first position, after the first HHD sermon I delivered at the congregation, a member of the congregation asked my husband (a professor) if he helped me to write it. My husband thought he was kidding, and was offended and stunned when he realized, he wasn’t.”

And another: “I was the only woman on a four person clergy team. At the oneg, a long-time congregant approached me and said: “You’ve got the best legs on the bima.” And another: “After repeatedly asking him not to – my senior rabbi still refers to me as “kiddo.”

The struggle to be taken seriously – the struggle for one’s expertise to be recognized and valued – this is not a struggle that is limited only to female rabbis and cantors… but, this is an ongoing struggle that many, many women can relate to.

And of course, many of us watched this struggle come to the fore this past week in the wake of an Op-Ed published in the Wall Street Journal, which included another “kiddo” punch on another woman. In an attempt to convince the public that Dr. Jill Biden should forego the use of her hard-earned title – the author of the Op-Ed began his unbelievingly disparaging remarks with these opening words – which I had to actually read twice to be sure I was reading them correctly. He wrote:

“Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the “Dr.” before your name? A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child. Think about it, Dr. Jill, and forthwith drop the doc.”[2]

I almost let it go. It’s one person – one opinion. People are entitled to their opinions. But then, what became completely inexcusable, in my opinion, was the Wall Street Journal’s subsequent defense – and support – of the op-ed’s remarks. After a flood of reactions to the piece, the Wall Street Journal staffer who is responsible for the opinion pieces chimed in, and wrote that the Op-Ed’s critique of Jill Biden’s use of her title was “fair comment.”[3]

This, to me, is not ok.

And it is not ok, because it is not just about Dr. Jill Biden. But, rather, it’s about every woman who has gone through the hard, sometimes grueling, work, of trying to make it in a man’s world. It’s about every female doctor, lawyer, professor, CEO, journalist, news anchor, scientist, and rabbi who has struggled to be taken seriously in her field. It’s about every female professional whose competencies have been questioned or overlooked or disregarded because of her gender – whether it was 40 years ago, or 4 days ago.

My daughter was 8 months old when I was nearing the end of rabbinic school. At one of my first interviews for an Assistant Rabbi position, a member of the search committee asked me, “When you have to go on an overnight retreat with the teens, or attend an overnight conference, how will it be for you, to have to leave your daughter? How will you be able to cope with being away from her? How will you manage?”

Six years of intensive studies in Hebrew, Bible, Talmud, Liturgy and more… and this was what they wanted to know?! Heck – if I had known that my parenting abilities would be scrutinized as much as my Hebrew abilities, I might have saved a lot of money and years in school.

However, during the time that I did spend in school – working on skills other than mothering – I came across many kernels of Jewish wisdom about what it takes to rid ourselves of biased search committees and other forms of gender inequality. I learned, for instance, about the common Yiddush greeting among women: “Skostl Kumt” – which means, “You’re here!” or “I’m here.” There is no definitive explanation for this practice, but there is a Yiddush folktale, which is somewhat of a feminist Tower of Babel story, that attempts to explain its origins. Once upon a time, as retold by Rabbi Jaqueline Koch Ellenson, all of the women were unhappy that everything in the world seemed to belong only to men. They wanted to make their unhappiness known to God, and in order to do this, they decided that they needed to build a tower that would reach all the way to the heavens. I suppose they were imagining something like the original “glass ceiling.” Of all the women, Skotsl stood out for being the most clever and wise, and so the women chose her to climb to the top of the tower and have a word with God. But just as Skotsl reached the top, the tower collapsed, and in all the confusion that followed, she was nowhere to be found. According to legend, women still hope that Skotsl will return one day in order to have that talk with God, and so that is why, for centuries, women have greeted one another with the Yiddush term: “Skotsl kumt” – meaning, “You’re here,” or “I’m here.”[4]

I love this expression and I love the notion that women have been saying it to one another for centuries. Because by greeting one another with the words “You’re here!” Or “I’m here!” it means that, really – any of one us can be Skostl – any one of us has the power and the potential to reach the heavens; any one of us has the ability to have that much needed word with God and finally set things right; any one of us is capable of finally reaching and shattering that proverbial “glass ceiling.”

Indeed, this was Kamala Harris’ message that night that she accepted the Vice Presidential nomination and women and girls from all corners of our country cheered, “You’re here!” And from that TV screen, she looked at every woman and every little girl watching from home and she declared back, “I’m here – and you’re here, too. You too, are here, and, you, too, have the power to reach the heavens. You, too, have the power to finally set things right.” But I still think that there is something missing from that Yiddish folktale – something that perhaps explains why the women were so unsuccessful in the first place.

Where are the men, in the story?

Where are the boys?

If women truly want to build towers and shatter glass ceilings, then we cannot go at it alone. We will never be successful, on our own. We need men and we need boys, who are willing to roll up their sleeves and help us build a foundation on which to stand.

We need fathers and we need grandfathers, who hand over hammers and nails to their daughters and granddaughters and who say: “I believe in you.”

And we need male supervisors and male co-workers who regularly turn to us and say: “Tell me what I can do to help.”

Or, as Rabbi Schultz says to me, time and time again, “I want to be a male voice who seeks to ensure a community where our female colleagues are treated with respect and as equals. How can I do that? How am I doing at that?” And, as I say to him, “Just by asking those questions – you are doing a pretty damn good job.”


It starts with a commitment to asking questions.

Questions like:

What books can I be reading with my children and grandchildren that celebrate the accomplishments of women and girls? If you need some suggestions, I’d be more than happy to send you a list.

And questions like… When we are sitting around the dinner table with our families, and we are talking about our leaders, are we using titles like Dr. and Rabbi and Vice President for leaders of all genders?

And questions like… when I am teaching a class, or writing an article, or planning a presentation… am I including women’s voices, and women’s scholarship?

In response to that unfortunate Op-Ed about her title, Dr. Jill Biden simply and graciously wrote: “Together, we will create a world where the accomplishments of all our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished.” [5]

Amen, Dr. Biden.


May it be so.

[1] “Sally Priesand Ordained as First American Woman and Rabbi”

[2] Epstein, Joseph, “Is There A Doctor in the White House: Not If You Need an MD,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 December 2020.

[3] Gigot, Paul, “The Biden Team Strikes Back,” The Wall Street Journal, 13 December 2020.

[4] Rabbi Jaqueline Koch Ellenson, “Preface,” in The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf, eds. CCAR Press, 2016.

[5] Rachel Treisman, “Op-Ed Urging Jill Biden to Drop the “Dr” Sparks Outrage Online,” NPR, 13 December 2020.