June 20, 2019

Evolving Feminism

When my first daughter was born, I welcomed her into the world with a naming ceremony on the eighth day of her life, which happened to be a Thursday. The ceremony took place at a time that was convenient for the officiating rabbi and not necessarily the people who have jobs or a commute across town. Both friends and family members complained they could not leave work, they’d hit rush hour traffic, or some other reasonable gripe. My husband and I could not help but wonder, if we had a boy and the ceremony was a brit milah, would anybody complain? And so, we decided that welcoming our daughter into the Jewish community on the eighth day would be our way of demonstrating that she counted and was as important to us as a son would be. Whoever considered it a priority to welcome our daughter into the fold with us would come, and whoever didn’t, wouldn’t.

It seems anachronistic to call myself a feminist in the year 2000. In fact, I used to be very uncomfortable with the term. I truly thought being a feminist was being some kind of an angry radical. I wasn’t mad. I was simply a strong, smart woman with professional goals.

When I was ordained, I remember people asking me if it was different for me to be a rabbi as a woman than it would be for a man. My answer back then was, “Not at all.”

I was grateful for the generation of women rabbis who came before and paved the way for me and my female classmates and colleagues. At first it seemed so easy. I had a great job, a lot of responsibility and exposure in the community. It seemed like I could do anything. But now that I’m a mother, and a mother of daughters at that, I must admit not only would I answer the question differently, now I hold fast to the title of feminist.

After I delivered my first child and took my first maternity leave, everything changed the first time I showed up at temple with my newborn. My congregation didn’t know how to respond to a rabbi who was also a human being with her own familial and personal needs. It was interesting to notice people staring at the breast pump I carried in and out of the office in its recognizable big blue box, as if they just figured out that I had a completely equipped body underneath the robe I wore on the pulpit. It was strange to suddenly stop receiving feedback on programs or constructive criticism on sermons, as if I could no longer handle it. And it was hurtful to be told that I might perhaps be happier in a less demanding job, as if I was no longer authentic as a congregational rabbi.

I’d like to say that everything around me changed and I remained the same, but that would not be completely honest. I was no longer willing to be at the beck and call of my congregation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I had a great deal to learn about balancing a demanding profession and my family. I needed to figure out if it was even possible to be the kind of mother I wanted to be and work full-time.

It finally occurred to me that feminism was not outdated, but rather in a process of transformation. Women can, for the most part, do whatever we wish. The problem is that our workplaces and our communities don’t know how to respond to us. And, if we are honest, we haven’t quite figured out how to help them. In fact, I think that a feminist today is a teacher or at least a role model. As feminists, we face the challenge of teaching ourselves how to be mothers, wives and professionals, and teaching others what to expect from us and how to partner with us at work, in the neighborhood and at home. Being a feminist today is not as easy as one might think. It requires scrutinizing every choice we make and carefully choosing every word we say.

I have learned over the years how to be flexible in my schedule so that my family can always come first, even while I continue to work full-time in a congregation. I have learned how to smile and appreciate compliments on my suit after pouring my heart and soul into a sermon that few seemed to notice. I have even learned how to accept gracefully that I might never be the other rabbi in my synagogue, but I will probably always be the woman rabbi.

I have recently given birth to another daughter. My husband and I decided to name her on the eighth day again. I plan to carry my breast pump in and out of the office and occasionally show up with my newborn. And when people recognize my two girls and ask me if I plan to try again for a boy, I’ll smile politely and say little. You can imagine what I’ll be thinking.

At any rate, I hope my daughters won’t have to be feminists. The truth is that I do get tired of being on guard and feeling that I always have to see myself as setting an example. I hope that my girls can just be strong, smart women achieving whatever goals they set out for themselves. Toward that end, I will work and guide them, and even pray for a little divine intervention.


Johanna Hershenson is rabbi at Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo.