Monday, January 14, 2013

Why I love the Women’s Rabbinic Network

My first awareness of the Women’s Rabbinic Network came, rather appropriately, from one of the first women rabbis that I learned from and was inspired by while I was still living in the UK.  Rabbi Marcia Plumb, originally hailing from Texas, but living and working in the UK for a number of years, already had many years of first hand knowledge of the WRN.  Since arriving in London, she had also become one of the founding members of a wonderful feminist Jewish group that ran its own conferences and workshops, ‘The Half Empty Bookcase.’

And so it was, back in 2002, just as I was starting my rabbinic studies at Leo Baeck College, that Marcia brought a group of us together – other female colleagues out in the field and rabbinic students – and announced that, at the last WRN Convention, she had suggested that they all come to London for the next one.  And they decided to take her up on the offer!  We went to work creating a convention program – a considerable achievement for a group, only one of whom had ever seen what a WRN Convention looked like.
Board installation at WRN London, 2003

Ten years ago, in January, 2003, approximately 80 women rabbis gathered in London – an incredible bringing-together of women from North America, Israel, the UK, and several communities across Europe.  Now, by this time I had met many, if not all, of the female rabbis in the UK.  I don’t have the total number that existed then, or now, but if I tell you that there perhaps 60 or so Progressive synagogues in the UK altogether, some too small to have their own clergy, you can imagine just how overwhelming and exciting it was to see 80 women rabbis descend on London at the same time!
Because of my own travels back and forth between the USA and London, I already knew a handful of these women.  It felt wonderful to introduce them to ‘my land’, and they introduced me to many of their colleagues.  Women that I am proud to serve alongside today in the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ); women who taught at Hebrew Union College (HUC-JIR) who I would, less than a year later, be learning from when I transferred my studies to HUC-JIR, New York; women who served as Regional Directors of the movement, and in other roles as consultants with expertise in a variety of areas; women who were congregational rabbis, and women whose rabbinate was served in chaplaincy or in schools.  One of the things that the WRN has done better than many rabbinic associations has been to embrace and try to support Rabbis who work in many different fields, recognizing that women in particular are more likely to have a diverse portfolio that represents their different passions and interests, and sometimes the choices that have been made or have been necessary to facilitate life-work balance.
Many of these women became my role models.  WRN gatherings, and especially the unique conventions, became a highlight for me.  While these gatherings always include content that contributes richly to our professional development, there is an added component of spirituality, creativity and innovation in worship, and encouragement and support for the real life stuff of being a woman working in the rabbinate, that I have seldom experienced so authentically and deeply in any other professional setting.
Rabbinic shmoozing at WRN London, 2003
I am writing this on the plane, as I make my way to Memphis for this year’s WRN Convention.  I’m excited to reconnect with friends and colleagues, and this year I’m especially excited by the direction the organization is beginning to move in.  I’ve been a member of the WRN Board for the past couple of years, and took on the role of Communications VP, as we transitioned away from a print newsletter to expanding the ways we communicated with our members, and helped our members communicate with each other. Taking full advantage of the ways that social media and other technologies can help to connect us when we are not together, we are moving into a new phase in the life of the organization where we make better use of those connections to advocate for our members, and for women’s issues more broadly.  We’re finding ways to help the voices and perspectives of women rabbis be more present and heard in the public sphere.  Our WRN Blog, Kol Isha (the voice of a woman), was launched less than a year ago, and has already received over 17,000 hits.  A team of women rabbis have shared the blog, offering a plurality of voices and perspectives on many issues.  At this convention we will receive training from the Op-Ed Project, which works to help under-represented groups within society be seen and heard on the op-ed pages of online and printed media.  Some of our colleagues have already made significant inroads in these areas, but our work together at this convention will, we hope, help to empower many more.

I know that some of my colleagues are excited about the possibility of seeing Elvis at Graceland (and yes, we are going to Graceland!).  I’ve never been much into Elvis, but I am excited about spending the next few days with some of my female rabbinic colleagues.  I know that I will return ‘All Shook Up’ - re-energized, spiritually nourished, and inspired.
We will be tweeting the Convention at #wrn13
We will be posting blog updates at the WRN Blog, throughout the Convention.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

'It was meant to be', and other theologically complex statements

I recently returned from an amazing trip to Senegal.  I was there to visit my step-daughter who is in Peace Corp out there.  It was incredible to get just a brief taste of her experience living in a village in an inner region of the country.  Returning home, as many have asked us 'did we have a good vacation?' I have found myself answering, 'it was an experience.'  I'm so glad we had the opportunity to have this experience and yet it is unlike anything I've ever done for 'vacation' before.
There is much that I could say about the trip and all that we experienced, from the landscape, the people and cultures, the food, to the village way of life.  But I'd like to share one story that I shared with two of my classes at Religious School last night in the context of our theological, 'God Talk' sessions.  The topic - transportation.
Public transportation is quite an experience in Senegal.  Aside from our initial trip in from Dakar to the inland region, where we shared a private ride with another Peace Corp family, we opted to use public transport to get around.  We found ourselves getting into vehicles that, in any other country, I would never dream of traveling in.  There was not a single taxi ride that we took for very local journeys that did not involve a taxi with multiple cracks across the front windscreen.  All of the shared 7-seater cars that we took had taken some kind of beating on the severely pot-hole marked roads that we rode upon.  But the most challenging ride we took was in one of their regional minibuses that ride from market town to market town.  After a three hour wait on the side of the road following a beautiful hike to a waterfall in a fairly remote eco-tourist location, this was all that came by, and we decided that it was possibly our only ride back to home base that day.
Senegal minibus

These buses are loaded with as many people as they can hold, along with any assortment of items up on the room (in another location we saw 3 goats that had been purchased in the market town seated up top).  After a very bumpy hour and a half ride back to base, one of us seated in the aisle on a bag of rice and one of us with a set of live chickens under our seat, we arrived safely at our destination.
We had planned to take a 'night bus' back to Dakar at the end of our trip so as to avoid traveling in the hot daytime.  However, upon arrival at the market town where we expected to make that connection we learned that the reservation that had been made by phone didn't exist as that particular bus had been rerouted for that one night to Touba for a Muslim pilgrimage.  Another lengthy wait ensued and we got ourselves a ride on a seven seater car that brought us safely back to Dakar in plenty of time for our plane home the following night.
The following morning, sitting in a Dakar coffee shop, I picked up one of the French newspapers.  My French isn't what it used to be, but I could translate enough of the front page article to see that the previous night, a bus on its way to Touba had been in a head-on collision with one of the regional minibuses.  Tragically, all 26 occupants of the minibus were dead.
After taking in the tragedy of the story, my very next thought, reflecting back on the previous day's frustrations as our plans had gone awry and we'd had a long, hot wait for alternative transportation was, 'perhaps it was meant to be.'  And in almost the same moment of utterance, I felt ashamed.  Meant to be that we were not on one of those buses? Meant to be that we had to change our plans?  But surely not meant to be for the 26 souls who died?
As I shared the theological implications of the statement with my students, we reflected on how often we find ourselves, upon seeing the larger picture, or realizing that something good has come out of something that we initially perceived as bad, voicing such a statement.  Its familiar to many.  But what do we actually mean by it?
For some, their belief is indeed shaped by a sense that something larger than ourselves - often understood as God - is guiding the direction of our lives.  When we experience something negative or painful or tragic, one who believes this can find it a meaningful way to manage their suffering through the faith that there is a bigger picture and a larger plan that we simply don't understand.  However, for others, this kind of belief leads to incredible anger toward God and a magnification of their suffering.
For some, the statement is less of a theological statement about God's hand in our lives and more of a pragmatic statement of relief that, perhaps by random chance, we ended up going left instead of right, left 5 minutes later instead of 5 minutes earlier.  In order that we find ourselves where we are right now, it had to be that the turn of events prior evolved as they did.
Beliefs about the extent to which God has a will and is directly engaged in our lives are many and varied throughout Jewish philosophical thought. They feed into a wide range of beliefs and opinions of the extent of free will vs 'fate'.  If we do not believe in fate, is it a contradiction to believe that something was 'meant to be' in the sense of God having a hand in the specifics of our lives?
For some, their belief in God is more of a sense of the pulsing energy of existence that encapsulates and goes beyond all things knowable and unknowable.  To that extent, it is more of an ever-unfolding 'is' than an entity with conscious will, at least in the way that we understand those words in human terms.  For such a believer to use the phrase 'it was meant to be', they have more in common with the one who believes that it is all just random chance, except that this unfolding of their life and reality may be imbued with a greater sense of awe and a sense of the mystery of it all that provides the foundation for their spirituality.
Personally, it is in this latter group that I find myself. But what I realized as I analyzed these ideas with my students is that a variety of different belief systems can lead to the same outcome - a way of accepting that which 'is', whether felt as positive or negative, and taking the next step forward into life because or in spite of what has just come before.  Its not arriving at the specific formulation of one's belief that is most important; it is recognizing how it serves or hinders one's ability to live a meaningful life in this world.  And understanding that the only moment that we truly have is this one.