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Jewess » Jewish Clergy Invited to Inaugural Prayer Service Are All Men

Jewish Clergy Invited to Inaugural Prayer Service Are All Men

by Rebecca Honig Friedman

The Obama camp has chosen three rabbis to participate in the morning-after-the-inauguration prayer service, along with Muslim and Christian clergy, the JTA reports. Not surprising, the chosen rabbis — David Saperstein, Jerome Epstein and Haskel Lookstein — represent each of the three major Jewish denominations, showing Obama’s attempt to be inclusive of different types of American Jews. But it’s worth noting, as JTA Managing Editor-In-Chief Ami Eden pointed out to me today, that none of these rabbis is a woman. Not so inclusive now, are we President-Elect?

However, while Mr. Eden said he was incensed by this oversight [UPDATE: Eden writes, “I’m not incensed. But I do think it’s an all too typical oversight when it comes to these sorts of things. And something worth poking the Obama team about. (To be fair, I do believe there are women clergy from other faiths participating.)”], I see it merely as a telling indication of the state of Jewish rabbinical leadership. What woman in the Reform movement has the same high profile as Rabbi Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of the Reform Movement, the Democrat-iest, most activist-y of all rabbis? (The other obvious choice for the Reform representative would be Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Reform movement, but Saperstein holds the distinct distinction of being the Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Hard to top that as a claim for governmental inclusion.)
Who is more obvious a choice to represent the Conservative movement than Rabbi Epstein, the Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative synagogues? (Certainly there is no woman of higher or equivalent rank in the movement).
And since women are not ordained as rabbis in the Orthodox movement, it’s obvious a man would be chosen as the Orthodox representative to the prayer session. Plus who better to represent the Orthodox community to the American people than Rabbi Lookstein, the recently retired spiritual leader of the most powerful and wealthiest (at least pre-Bernie Madoff) Orthodox community in America, who has been involved in political life for decades? (Rabbi Avi Weiss would also have been a fitting choice, but Rabbi Lookstein has the distinct advantage of being, allegedly, the one to convert Ivanka Trump to Judaism. Personally I think the Donald must have put in a good word ;-) )

But, you say, there are plenty of prominent Conservative and Reform rabbis who are women, who are dedicated to pursuing social justice and activism through a Jewish lens, and who were probably more fervent supporters of Obama than the male big shots on the podium (aside from Saperstein). Like Rabbi Sharon Brous or Rabbi Jill Jacobs or Rabbi Denise Eger, or Rabbi Dayle Friedman, or Rabbi Elyse Frishman (who better to offer a prayer than the editor of the Reform movement’s new prayer book), or Rabbi Laura Geller, or Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, slated to become the first female Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the union for Conservative rabbis.

(For the record, the above list was drawn largely from the last two years of the Forward 50.)

However, while all of the above have achieved some level of prominence in the Jewish community, and have contributed immensely to their respective communities and/or to American Judaism as a whole, none have gained the status and prominence of a Lookstein, Saperstein, or Epstein. One reason is their careers have not been as long as those of a Lookstein, Saperstein or Epstein — no female rabbis’ careers have been, since women have only been ordained in America since the 1970s, and in the Conservative movement since the mid-1980s.

And yet, by not making a point to include a woman (or an LGBT rabbi for that matter), by choosing rabbis of the establishment, Obama and his people have sent the message — intentionally or not — that, when it comes to the American Jewish community, they’re not looking to makes waves or to take an untraditional or unconventional approach. (In contrast, Obama has sent the opposite message to the Muslim community, by including Ingrid Mattson, the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America, in the prayer ceremony.) While this message runs antithetical to the campaign’s promise of change, it does placate the elements of the Jewish community that have been uncomfortable with that message, particularly when it comes to Israel. And it does speak to Obama’s more traditional views when it comes to religion (he is opposed to gay marriage after all).

So, while it may disappoint the more progressive, change-hungry among us (including Ami Eden), I’m not surprised that the Jewish community’s rabbinic reps to the inauguration are the ones who’ve been in the public eye for decades, who are familiar and respected faces in both Jewish and American public life, and who are ‘known entities.’ When it comes to the inauguration at least, Obama has voted for the McCains of the Jewish community.

One Response to “Jewish Clergy Invited to Inaugural Prayer Service Are All Men”

  1. Now, why would a nice Jewish female want to go to church?

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    Jewess is a blog about Jewish women's issues, and is part of the Canonist network of religion blogs.

    Senior Writer:
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