1) What is your background (place, family, level of observance) education, age and family (husband and son) year of ordination? General biographical paragraph.
I grew up in West Redding Connecticut, very small town. My family was highly spiritual but not very observant. I did not have a Bat Mitzvah. My father is an artist, and I would sit by his desk while he worked, and he would talk to me about art, about creation, the fragility of man, blank space, building one’s monument, all of the concepts that are ART concepts, but somehow filtered into my mind as religious concepts. The language is very much the same. So I think of my home as religious and spiritual, but without the symbols of organized religion. I remember when my mother first came to visit me when I lived in Israel in College, we were in a silver shop, and she picked up two candlesticks and burst into tears. She said, “Why didn’t anyone give these to me at my wedding?” And the first time I “made Shabbos” at my parent’s home, my father burst into tears and said “Why didn’t I ever have this?” It is as if all of the meaning behind the symbols of candles and shabbat were always presence, without them being tangible. I went to an Episcopalian high school where we went to chapel every day, said grace before meals and studied new testament and old with a minister. Then I went to Brandeis university and Hebrew Union College my Junior year, and straight to Hebrew Union College from college. I remember in my interview for Rabbinical school someone asked what I would do if they told me I was too young and needed to apply later. I responded that I would procure their book lists and curriculums for the first year, learn it and then reapply next year to be exempted from the first. There was no question that I knew this is where I belonged.
I am 30 years old. I was ordained in 1998. My husband is Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Hillel director of USC, and my son is Rachmiel, and he is 2.
2) How old were you when you first realized you wanted to be a rabbi? What sparked your interest?
I never knew that I could be a rabbi, but I’ve ALWAYS been heading toward it. When I was about four years old, I told my parents “When I grow up I want to be the tooth fairy…” If I had known I could be a rabbi, I am positive I would have set my sights on that from the start instead of the tooth fairy, but I always wanted to touch the ethereal, help people, do something magical. I always prayed. Although my family was not observant, I have always believed in God my entire life, I would pray every night, every day, tell God about my day, ask questions, and I’d listen for answers in the breezes and little things that happened. I had no rabbinical role model until long after I had already decided to become a rabbi. It was a purely organic calling. When I was a child I would let helium balloons go into the sky with notes attached to my dead relatives. I sat with a bible and a dictionary and read cover to cover. If you asked me what sparked my interest to become a rabbi, I would say unequivocally that it was God. God sparked my interest. No person, no event, no movement. God.
When I was in my junior year in Israel, I would sit with my male friends and all of them would talk about becoming a rabbi. I sat quietly, thinking to myself, “Why are they even debating the issue? If I were a man I would definitely become a rabbi!” I thought this for quite some time until I voiced it to a friend who said, “Zoë, Women have been rabbis for about 25 years already! It’s no big deal. If you’re worried about being some kind of pioneer, you’re not.” This was a revelation for me! It was always what I wanted to be, and somehow, I never knew I could.
3) Did you think of it as a feminist gesture? How did you prepare yourself?
I thought that in order for a woman to become a rabbi she had to be an outspoken feminist. When I decided that I would pursue the Rabbinate, I immediately took a class on feminism, thinking that the two went hand in hand. I learned feminist theory and read important milestone pieces, and wondered if I should cut my long hair.
You know, a few years ago I led a feminist seder, or a woman’s seder, however you prefer, in Stamford Connecticut with the Mayan haggadah and Debbie Friedman led it with me as well, which was an honor. I was having trouble with the hagaddah. It was beautiful, and the music extraordinary, and I wasn’t sure what was wrong for me. I wrote some supplemental prayers. My husband read the prayers that I had written and said that the difference between my sentiments and the hagaddah were that I was a “natural feminist,” that there were no politics or history in my connection, just spiritual and organic, and those feelings are made entirely possible by all the pioneers that came before me. For me, it was not a feminist gesture, but it was built upon a sturdy foundation of feminist gestures made by others before me.
I believe that women have historically been seen as “dangerously mysterious,” you just have to look at the images on the television lately to see the women covered from head to toe in black, how mysterious! Every inch of them is mysterious. Well, the purpose of religious is to familiarize the mysterious, and so it seems so natural that a woman, who has historically been categorized with the mystery of creation, should be the one to guide and reveal.
4) Did anyone in your family discourage you, saying it was not for a girl?
No one did, because they knew me. Friends of our family thought it was a little out of the blue because we did not have a conventionally religious family, but anyone who knew me truly knew it was the right path.
5) What was your conception of being a rabbi when you started?
Because I had no rabbinical role models before actually entering the rabbinate, my conception of being a rabbi was idealistic and highly romanticized. Not much different than being a tooth fairy!
6) What is it now? Is it different? How so?
Now, the ethereal aspect of my work is securely anchored by the administrative. I had not anticipated the amount of administrative work and meetings. I guess I had originally imagined it was ALL about prayer, that is how little I knew about the actual role. But I am not disappointed.
What I do miss, however, about those idealistic ideas, is the connection to God I had before I knew all the proper formulas to pray with, when it was just me speaking as opposed to rote formulas. That’s the catch-22, you study religion because you have a deep relationship with God and because you study religion, God becomes more and more distant, like chasing a sunbeam. I miss the pre-wisdom faith that I enjoyed.
7) Do you feel you get a different response from your congregation than male colleagues? Is there a story where this proved to be true or not?
Sometimes congregants who don’t know me are hesitant about trusting me. It never bothers me, because I think a rabbi is a very intimate person in your life, she is there for funerals and weddings and life cycle events that are so raw and personal, and you should feel comfortable with him or her. If someone is not comfortable with me sharing those moments with them because of my gender, it does not upset me in the least. You can’t force anyone to love you, nor can you force anyone to trust you spiritually. It has to be earned. Maybe sometimes I have to earn that trust a little more than my male colleagues.
I used to think it made no difference that I was a woman. I used to think the difference was more that I was young, not female. But when I left my previous congregation, there really weren’t many female rabbis in our neighborhood, and some of my congregants who had been close with me left the congregation to join a neighboring synagogue where they had just hired a female rabbi, as if by the very nature of her being female, she would perhaps be like me. That made me feel that maybe my message wasn’t being heard, that it was more about my presence than my message. But in general, there really is not much difference.
8) Has being a woman been an asset to being a rabbi?
As I said, I think that historic connection with the mysterious, and also that women have historically been homemakers and the rabbinate is in many ways about making a synagogue a second home, and also women are historically seen as good listeners…I think all of those negative stereotypes from the past actually fit well with what people want from a rabbi…a gracious hostess, care, gentleness and strength… In those ways I think it is an asset.
But I also sometimes think there is an assumption of lesser scholarship, that sermons or instruction from a women should somehow be touchy-feely, as opposed to revolutionary thought. I don’t think of myself as touchy-feely at all, but I know that others do. I often wonder if the same poetry that I speak, in a male voice, would be heard entirely differently.
You know what bothers me? This is a different subject I guess, but whenever there is a “feminist anthology” that comes out, like there is a new one coming out on the prophet Miriam, and it is all women writers write about Miriam, it bugs me. I mean, wouldn’t a feminist anthology on Miriam include male authors as well? Is it really about rescuing Miriam from anonymity, or what?
9) Why did you decide to become a Reform rabbi, given there were other options?
I came very close to applying to the conservative movement rabbinical school. I had this fear of getting my wings clipped, of my rabbinate being reactionary as opposed to visionary. I am glad with my choice. I love the Reform movement and the way it wrestled with everything including itself.
10) In your individual relationship with God and Jewish learning do you ever find yourself challenged with texts which offend you? How do you deal with that, and then teach others to find meaning in it?
There are so many offensive texts. But I always remember what I am reading is not modern thought, only the seeds! The mystics say that when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, it was given in black fire and white fire. The black fire is actually the oral Torah, and the white fire is the written. In other words, the black letters that we read are what man wrote. The white spaces in-between, which we have not learned to translate, that is God’s word. That is the revelation. The texts that I find offensive are the texts of the manmade oral tradition. God’s word I am not fluent enough in to judge.
When I studied kabbalah, I was at first on fire with the power of it all. Then I started to become frustrated and despondent, because women were so clearly excluded. In fact, woman was just a vessel for man’s further enlightenment. A sage was to make love to his wife on the sixth day in order to arouse Tiferet to long for Shechinah…sleeping with his wife was all about affecting something in the cosmos…she is just some vessel for his ultimate, heroic, heaven-altering purpose. But then, out of my sorrow, something broke through. I realized that because I wasn’t written in, I was entirely free. Kabbalah, Torah, Talmud, was all mine to learn and play and tease and mold and own and dance through with no strings attached. I didn’t have to follow the grain, I could be the wind, or be water, and be fluid enough to move around and in and throughout every letter, unfettered. No one could see me, I wasn’t written in, I was invisible, and I suddenly felt a surge of joy and ownership and freedom. It was amazing.
11) Have you ever been directly, or indirectly, confronted with people saying your being a rabbi is somehow against Judaism?
Once a Chabad woman, a neighbor of mine, took me out to a wonderful lunch to talk to me about the Rebbe. She wanted to bring me into the fold. She told me how the Rebbe believed that women should work and teach Torah. I asked her if he would have approved of what I do, and she said he would approve of everything I do accept being on the pulpit. It didn’t upset me, that is one belief. If someone who is orthodox tells me they don’t accept women-rabbis, I say that’s ok, I am not your rabbi. I have enormous respect for the orthodox tradition, and I have been to orthodox synagogues where I am welcomed as rabbi. If there are those who don’t approve, than it only means that that is where they are. God is speaking through them too. It doesn’t really bother me the way it bothers so many of my colleagues.
When I was in Israel, I studied everything. I was so hungry to learn, and since I did not have a bat mitzvah I was really starting from the beginning. I even took a class at Neve Yerushalayim which is a very orthodox yeshiva for girls. I was learning Ein Yaakov, ethical teachings, in a class with other girls. I was always very careful about what I wore so I would fit in, closed toe shoes, no shoulder blade peaking out. The teacher was a middle aged man in a black coat and hat who had spent most of his life teaching girls. The last day of class, after a full year, I decided to “come out,” and I revealed that I was applying to rabbinical school. The teacher laughed so hard that his hat popped off his head and fell on the floor! I couldn’t help laughing too! But then the most amazing thing happened…now, mind you, I KNOW that he deeply disapproved of my decision but…for the first time that entire year he taught a phenomenal class that included halacha…he had never taught any halacha to us, and now he went all out. I mean he was on fire. I realized that here was this man who had spent his life teaching girls only certain ethical “easy” things, and then, for the first time in his life, he had a Rabbinical student in one of his classes, how she got there, who she was, that she was a women, or a heretic, didn’t matter at the moment, he became for the next hour a teacher to rabbis, and it was remarkable. The girls wouldn’t talk to me on the bus back to Jerusalem, but I felt glowing. I felt that I had given them something amazing that might deepen them even if just the littlest bit, for the rest of their lives. They would never forget.
12) What is your hope for women rabbis in the future?
I look forward to women rabbis being old and gray and creased and walking with canes and being emeritus, because I believe that once there are enough of us who are elderly, with white hair and thick glasses, we will start to complete the landscape of Clergy. Now the majority of us are young or middle-aged, but not quite using walkers yet. I think when there are enough of us with walkers, then people will start to think of “the rabbi” not only as the old man with the white beard, but the old lady with the white chin hairs as well!
13) Would you encourage your daughter, or son, to become a rabbi?
I don’t know. My husband is a rabbi as well, and I think three in one house would be a lot of rabbis! But yes, if I saw in my son what I felt as a child, nearness to God, I would encourage him. I wouldn’t want him, or anyone, to become a rabbi because they thought it was a good job, but only because of nearness to God.
14) Has the balance of raising children and having a family been challenging while being in a leadership role in a congregation? What benefits do you think your children have received from it?
It has been challenging. Pregnancy was challenging because it made me more corporeal than spiritual. But it also anchored my free-floating beliefs and made me better able to serve and relate to my congregation. Parenting has benefited my rabbinate immensely, but whether my rabbinate will benefit Rachmiel will still be seen. I dread him asking me someday why I sermonize about families and I am so often not home with mine. Why I celebrate the holidays with everyone else, only to return exhausted to half-heartedly celebrate at home. I think my synagogue and my husband’s wonderful hillel will give our children great social and experiential opportunities, expose them to all kinds of people, I think it will give them a sense of joy and connectedness to their heritage, and hopefully a little pride in their parent’s efforts. I want to give our children the best of me. My calling happens to be the Rabbinate. If I were to forego that call, I would not be the best of me. I hope I am making the right decisions, but I think every parent has doubts!