Rabbi Deborah Waxman has been many firsts in her life. She was one of the first bat mitzvahs to be celebrated on a Saturday morning in her hometown of West Hartford, Connecticut in 1979 and now she is the first female rabbi, and the first lesbian, to lead a Jewish congregational institution.
Waxman, 47, took office as president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities on January 1, 2014. Since then, Waxman has made it her business to bring a Reconstructionist perspective to a broader public conversation. She has been invited to speak at a number of settings from the JCPA Plenum to the WAMC public radio station in the Berkshires that broadcasts to 6 states.
Growing up in a Conservative Jewish family, Waxman is a middle child of a family of five. Her father was a traveling salesman and her mother was involved in their synagogue. Waxman earned a Ph.D. in American Jewish History from Temple University after her M.A. in Hebrew Letters from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Before that she’d earned a B.A. in religion from Columbia University.
Waxman now lives in Philadelphia with her partner, Christina Ager.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds caught up with Waxman ahead of her October 26 inauguration ceremony to find out about the changing culture of Judaism. When asked why she puts an orange on the Seder plate every year Waxman quotes an Orthodox rabbi who once said, “A woman on the bimah is like an orange on the Seder plate.”
Dorri Olds: When did your orange on the Seder plate tradition begin?
Rabbi Deborah Waxman: We’ve been doing that in my home for the past 30 years. I see the orange as both a symbol of celebration and of challenge. In the Reconstructionist movement we can celebrate [this change]. In the wider Jewish world it’s still a challenge. One of the things about bringing a Reconstructionist analysis more fully across the wider Jewish community would be a shattering of what seems to be a glass ceiling. Instead, it should be what I see at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly photo feature in which we sift 116 years of Forward history to find snapshots of women’s lives.
Author and activist Sarah Schulman is one of the most prominent voices in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) world. She’s also a prominent voice in the Jewish world. Therefore, it makes sense that her new book, “Israel/Palestine & the Queer International,” would be embraced by both the Jewish and queer communities, right? Not quite.
Schulman, an out lesbian whose plays and nonfiction pieces about the early days of the AIDS crisis are credited with raising awareness about the disease, was booked to speak at New York’s LGBT Community Center earlier this month. However, the center rescinded its invitation to Schulman following a complaint from an activist group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA). Playwright and performer Dan Fishback, a previous recipient of the Six Points Fellowship, took to his blog to complain about the rescinded invitation. He wrote an open letter to Glennda Testone, the LGBT Community Center’s Executive Director, criticizing her and the Center for trying to avoid political argument by silencing Schulman.
If ever there was proof positive that a once-marginal feminist Jewish ritual is now mainstream, this is it: The latest Pottery Barn catalog touts a new seder plate — holding an orange.
The modern, leaf-themed Passover tabletop accouterment has seven compartments. In addition to spaces for the ritual re-telling’s traditional symbols, there’s a leaf meant to hold an orange, which is also featured in the catalog photo.
Including an orange on the seder plate dates back to the early 1980s, according to the innovation’s creator, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth and the daughter of famed Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
As she relates, adding an orange grew out of her experience visiting Oberlin College, where she encountered a student-written feminist hagaddah. That hagaddah suggested putting a crust of bread — prohibited, of course, during the chametz-free festival — to express solidarity with lesbians and gay men after a rebbetzin had said, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” Heschel decided, the following year, to put an orange on her family’s seder plate.
This is the third entry in an ongoing series exploring Jewish feminism.
I want to answer the question of “what Jewish feminism means to me” in two ways: First, about how I learn from it both substantively; and second, on a meta level, in terms of how all of us enrich the Jewish conversation through our differences.
First, I cannot imagine my concept of God, as it stands now, without the input of Jewish feminists. As a young gay man, it was all too easy for me to understand God as a (male) friend, as a (putatively male) spirit, and even, alas, as a (highly male) father or judge. I did not “naturally” experience God as wombful (rachamim), as immanent in the breezes, trees and flowers, or as the endlessly circling and spiraling cycles of the natural world. To be sure, I had some vague experiential inklings of these mysterious forces, but they always seemed apart from my Judaism.
It was only as I came to appreciate the egalitarian and progressive elements of Jewish feminism and, later, its radical earth-based and potentially revolutionary elements that I saw how incomplete my earlier understanding of God had been.
Jewish feminism also means, for me, refusing to give one’s own preferences, or even the mandates of tradition, a veto over justice. For example, I still resonate more with traditional liturgical language than with some gender-neutral revisions of it, but my preferential “resonance” is, I think, much less important than ensuring our theological discourse does not perpetuate oppression.
While the world has been watching in nervous anticipation as the situation in Egypt unfolds, other events on the African continent worthy of our attention seem to be eluding the public eye and miss out on a much-needed outcry — especially from Jewish feminists.
David Kato, a Ugandan teacher and outspoken gay rights activist, was murdered last week in his home. This happened right after Kato won a lawsuit against a local tabloid magazine, Rolling Stone, for publishing his photo and name under a banner calling for the execution of 100 LGBT leaders. “Hang them!” the headline read.
Richmond Blake and Rafaela Zuidema interviewed Kato a couple of weeks ago, and wrote about it on The Huffington Post:
A fast talker with emphatic hand gestures, Kato launched into harrowing stories of a transgender friend who was denied medical care after being gang-raped and a fellow LGBT activist who died from what Kato suspected to be poisoning. In defiance of such tragedies, Kato made himself one of the most visible and outspoken LGBT leaders in Uganda and was unceasing in his efforts. … “There aren’t many people now who are willing to stand up and say they support LGBT rights, but I believe we can find those who are open-minded and show them this is a matter of basic human rights,” Kato said confidently.
When “Dan”, a 16-year-old boy from the center of Israel left for school on Tuesday morning, he told his mother that everything was fine and he was okay. That afternoon, Dan committed suicide.
Dan’s mother had no idea how bad his situation had become, she told the Army Radio in an interview last week. The most significant clue into Dan’s state of mind was the computer screen that Dan left on. It showed his Facebook page, which contained some of the taunting messages that his friends had sent him that day. “I’d kill you,” one message read, “but it’s wrong to be cruel to animals”.
Reports emerging from the school — an elite institution that is most actively recruited by the Air Force — paint a horrifying portrait. According to YNet, Dan was mocked, humiliated, beaten and turned into a regular object of scorn. While many students are claiming that it was all “nothing,” that the media is blowing events out of proportion, some other students have expressed deep shame. “Everyone picked on him because he was small”, a girl told reporters.
Diane Flacks, a Jewish actress and writer, appears in the “It Gets Better Canada,” the country’s LGBT community’s artistic contribution to the anti-bullying campaign. Flacks can be seen in the popular, 12-minute video saying, “In my son’s class, a lot of the kids say, ‘I have two moms!’ and they don’t. But they wish they did.”
Flacks, 45, fit in well with the other high-profile participants from the worlds of journalism, entertainment, fashion and design. A lesbian who grew up in Jewish day schools and came out at the age of 27, she is known for her columns in the Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star, as well as on CBC radio.She helped create five Canadian TV series and wrote for several others, including “The Kids in the Hall.” She wrote and starred in four one-women plays, including “Bear With Me,” about childbirth and the early stages of motherhood.
Flacks has been together with her wife, Janis Purdy, for 15 years. They were married six years ago and have two sons, ages 4 and 8. They live in downtown Toronto, where their older son attends an artistic, progressive Jewish day school. She spoke recently with The Sisterhood.