What To Call Your Rabbi?

Written By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

When I first came to be the rabbi of this holy community 17 months ago, a number of you asked what you should call me: Rabbi Nitkin-Kaner? Rabbi Ora? Reb Ora? Just ‘Rabbi’? Just ‘Ora’? It was my first congregational role post-ordination, and I was still adapting to my new title. I also wanted to be open to what each of you was most comfortable calling me. And so I likely said to you, “please call me whatever you feel most comfortable with,” with a default suggestion of ‘Rabbi Ora.’

17 months in, and several of you have continued to check in about how to address me. With a firmer sense now of my preference and its roots, I’m sharing this learning with you today:

In the near-2,000-year history of the role of rabbi, women have officially occupied this role for less than a century. The first modern woman rabbi that we know of, R. Regina Jonas, was ordained by Germany’s Reform movement in 1935. The next time Reform Judaism ordained a woman rabbi was in the United States in 1972, with R. Sally Priesand. Our Reconstructionist movement ordained its first woman rabbi, R. Sandy Eisenberg-Sasso, in 1974; then the Conservative movement with R. Amy Eilberg in 1985; and in 2009, Sara Hurwitz became the first Orthodox woman given the title of ‘maharat.’

One could argue that 5 decades of women rabbis in North America has given our Jewish communities sufficient time to get comfortable relating to rabbis who are not cisgender men. But the reality is that systemic misogyny (both in historical Judaism and in the non-Jewish world) continues to inform how women rabbis are regarded; women rabbis are consistently afforded less respect and confidence than our male counterparts.

In December 2017, Rabbi Jordie Gerson published an article in the Forward entitled “I Am the Rabbi, Not His Assistant: We Must Fight the Erasure of Female Clergy.” R. Gerson shares example after example of women and men, Jews and non-Jews, clergy and laypeople assuming she could not possibly be ‘the’ solo rabbi or speak from a position of grounded, educated Jewish authority.

R. Gerson writes: “This is demoralizing and exhausting. And it erases slow and painful advances it’s taken millennia to overcome – in a tradition whose right wing still scoffs at women rabbis.”

R. Gerson goes on to assure the reader that female clergy across faith lines share these experiences, including consistently being called by only their first names in situations where male clergy are called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Reverend’ or ‘Imam’ [Last-name].

On the heels of R. Gerson’s article, Rabbi Dr. Kari Hofmaister Tuling published an article in the Forward entitled, “Want to Help Women Rabbis Get the Respect They Deserve? Here’s a List.” The very first point on the list: “Refer to every colleague as ‘Rabbi’ [Last-Name] regardless of how cute or young or approachable or bubbly or fun she is.”

R. Dr. Hofmaister Tuling’s suggestion is an invitation and a challenge to all of us to invest in progress and claim respect for women clergy everywhere.

And, it’s also important to recognize that every community is different and has unique values and needs.

In Reconstructionist Judaism, and particularly in our community, we pride ourselves on being warm, welcoming, and somewhat informal. Given that, I suspect it would be overly distancing and stiff to be called ‘Rabbi Nitkin-Kaner’ by our members. So how do we balance a commitment to warmth with a commitment to allyship; how do we balance the value of closeness with a sense of confidence in the rabbi’s role?

There is power in naming and in being named. In light of what I’ve shared with you, I invite you to continue empowering me to be your rabbi, in the fullness of what that looks like within our community and beyond. And to answer the title’s question? Please, call me ‘Rabbi Ora.’