South Florida clergy women discuss challenges they face

Sergio Carmona, South Florida Sun Sentinel

Female Jewish spiritual leaders in South Florida explained the kinds of challenges they have faced throughout their careers.

On the same week the World Jewish Congress partnered with Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs to present the online forum, Women in Contemporary Judaism: Jewish Unity and Religious Diversity, local clergy women spoke about their experiences in positions that have typically been held by men.

Rabbi Laura Rappaport, who became spiritual leader of Temple Beth Orr in Coral Springs this year and was ordained more than 25 years ago, said, “I feel like there have been very few times when sexism has been very blatant.”

“There’s only one time I can remember when somebody in one of my congregations said, ‘We want to get a real rabbi: a man,’ but it’s usually not that blatant, and, honestly, I feel a lot of it is subconscious,” Rappaport added. “It is really hard to pinpoint, but people do treat women differently than men. Women aren’t perceived as quite as authoritative.”

Rappaport continued, “People have ideas on what a professional should look like based on their childhood, but that’s not unique to rabbis.”

“People think back to when they were a child and the rabbi was this man in a suit with a deep, booming voice who was very formal,” she said. “All the things they remember, they bring that with them. You consider a good rabbi the one you remember from childhood, and the more ways you deviate from that image, the more questionable people perceive you to be.”

Rappaport added, “But I don’t think that’s unique to clergy.”

“People feel that way about doctors or airplane pilots,” she noted. “I do think and hope that will change over time, but for now, when men have held a lot of those positions, it’s hard for people to change the image they have in their head on what the person should look and talk like.”

Rabbi Robyn Fisher, spiritual leader of Beth Or in Miami who was ordained three and a half years ago, said, “I would say that I have been so fortunate not to have faced very many challenges in my three and half years.”

“I think that I’m coming into a time when our world is shifting and where Miami in particular is, in terms of gender equality, very forward, supportive and moving,” Fisher continued. “Although there are still challenges such as pay equity and recognition of women rabbis as equal to men rabbis, I would say in my community in particular, there must be at least 15 women rabbis, so we’re everywhere.”

Fisher added, “We have major congregations, small congregations, and we’re running Jewish agencies.”

“There’ a plethora of us,” she said. “We support one another, we inspire one another and we help lift each other up.”

Rabbi Jessica Mates of Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, who has been ordained for 21 years, said, “What I found since day one as a female rabbi is you’re only a female rabbi until you do something with someone.”

“Once you comfort them through a funeral, or read a bar mitzvah for their child, or officiate their wedding or visit them in the hospital, then you become rabbi,” Mates continued. “I found that I became rabbi after I had personal connections and interactions.”

Mates continued, “I started an initiative on the side called I Have Your Back, which empowers women and girls to stand up to sexism or sexist talk in the workplace and in the world at large.”

“I found that people said to me things about my appearance, about my life and about my looks in ways they would never talk to some of our male rabbis,” Mates said. “What I’ve found over the years is that I now speak up and learn to empower others to speak up, where 25 years ago when I was in rabbinical school, I don’t know if I would’ve spoken up.”

Cantor Magda Fishman, who became the first female cantor at B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton when she was hired there in 2019, said, “It makes us stronger to actually deal with the challenges that come with being a female clergy and also a female leader.”

“If you look all over the country, you have women in other positions who were not there before,” she continued. “For me personally, its about building my strengths, my patience and acceptance of others, and also to learn to raise my voice when I believe in something about women and also about men in leadership.”

Fishman, added, “It’s also about supporting each other, and I think that’s the biggest thing, for everyone to connect, collaborate and be together.”