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.

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