women retired rabbis

Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of CCAR, stands on the left of a group of women rabbis posing for a photograph during NAORRR’s annual conference in Phoenix.

One hundred and seventy-one retired rabbis gathered in Phoenix for the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis’ (NAORRR) annual conference Jan. 5-9, but they weren’t there to reminisce about the good old days — at least, they weren’t only reminiscing.

Regardless of their emeritus status, attendees still have a keen interest in what the future holds for synagogue life and the rabbis still in the pulpit.

“Most rabbis are rabbis for life,” said Rabbi Gary Glickstein, NAORRR’s co-executive vice president and conference organizer.

While many professionals turn their focus to other interests after retirement, he said the same cannot be said for most rabbis.

“Rabbis seem to always want to remain rabbis and we find different avenues even after we retire,” Glickstein said.

For example, most of the people attending the conference are still teaching or substituting for full-time rabbis from time to time. Even during the conference, people talked about the opportunity to preside at High Holiday services for congregations across the country without permanent rabbis. In this way, they can keep a toe in the work, as well as help out congregations in need.

This year’s conference was in person for the first time since 2020. Every year its location swings between Phoenix or San Diego on the West Coast and Boca Raton, Florida on the East Coast. The bylaws state that the January conference must be held in warm weather.

Additionally, the bylaws state that spouses of rabbis are full members who can serve on the board and committees. Even surviving spouses who have been widowed remain members. Glickstein’s wife, Joanie Glickstein, is also co-executive vice president of NAORRR, though she is not a rabbi.

“We have several really active spouses, including some of the conference presenters and volunteers. It’s a family for them with real camaraderie, and I don’t see that in other organizations,” she said.

Most of the rabbis who belong to NAORRR are men, but that is changing.

The largest conference cohort of retired women rabbis thus far came to Phoenix. The women said the strong showing came only after years of hard work to make it a welcoming space.

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, a past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), said it was important to distinguish between the female rabbis and the female spouses.

In the past, when women rabbis have pointed out how few of them come to the conference, “some people said, ‘There are women here, just look at all the wives,’ but it’s not the same,” she said. “Some members don’t understand what our concern is and don’t quite see the difference. Whether you’re married to the rabbi or you are the rabbi, it’s not the same. We’re trying to change the culture.”

Rabbi Amy Perlin pointed out that the 50th anniversary of women in the rabbinate was celebrated last year. Just as the women rabbis were groundbreakers 50 years ago, those who are retired now are also making strides to be accepted in new roles.

“I look at today’s students and tomorrow’s NAORRR will be filled with women. As you retire you make choices, so there’s a learning curve,” she said.

(Perlin presided at the installation of her student, Temple Chai Rabbi Emily Segal, while she was in town.)

When Rabbi Glickstein first stepped into his position, he made it clear that getting women rabbis involved would be a priority and the NAORRR board agreed. To that end, he’s been talking to several women rabbis to get a complete picture of what they see as problematic.

“It will be another couple of years before a really sizable group of women will feel comfortable,” he said. “It’s step by step.”

Rabbi Annette Koch also highlighted the 50th anniversary, calling it a paradigm shift for Reform rabbis.

“These shifts don’t happen all at once. They may look like they start at once, but it takes time and it’s still ongoing,” she said.

The women rabbis entering retirement now have been “fighting this fight” for a long time and their needs have changed, she said. These women are looking for community just as the men are. This conference provides a logical place to find it, but that necessitates coming to terms with some things that have happened in the past that not everyone is so anxious to discuss.

Rabbi Laura Geller explained some of the backstory.

“Our movement is now challenged by revelations of boundary violations over the years of women rabbis by men. For some women to come to a gathering with some colleagues, who may have been the gatekeepers, is a challenge, but we have to have the difficult conversations of what restorative justice and repentance mean and how the community can help come to terms with the dark side of our history,” she said.

Still, she said it was clear that their male colleagues were sincerely happy to see them and seemed ready to acknowledge the past.

Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell agreed and added that the pandemic ironically made NAORRR more appealing because it offered online programs that appealed to and resonated with women rabbis.

“They’ve been talking about it a long time but now we’re here and we will teach them how to walk the walk,” she said.

Unfortunately, there are still echoes of semi-sexist jokes one hears at the conference, Dreyfus said.

“It’s like they haven’t been clued in yet that that’s not funny anymore.”

Issues of institutional abuse also arose during the panel “The State of the Reform Movement and Our Institutions” that featured heavy hitters Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ); Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of CCAR; and Andrew Rehfeld, president of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC).

It was the first time the three heads of Reform Judaism appeared together at a NAORRR conference.

Jacobs reflected on the strides made since URJ’s report on its ethics investigation was published nearly one year ago.

“That in many ways was the beginning and it was really a deep dive into really painful history,” he said.

Rehfeld told the audience to pay attention to the work that HUC is doing to ensure transparency when it comes to reporting abuses.

The Q&A went on for more than an hour and people asked about a range of topics: combatting shrinking synagogue memberships, future funding models, engaging young Jews, recruiting new rabbis, understanding Israel’s new government and its disapproval of Reform Judaism, abuse of rabbis by congregants, welcoming converts and fighting antisemitism.

The three panelists met with individuals and small groups to continue the conversation and “start talking about nuts and bolts, so it’s not just ideas,” Glickstein said.

Additionally, Jacobs met with several of Greater Phoenix’s Reform rabbis, who happily posted group photos on Facebook.

“The conference is an opportunity for these rabbis to support each other with friendship and to connect or reconnect to give them a sense that they’re valued,” Glickstein said.

The really exciting part is that after five days together talking and learning, “some of them will be fired up and will actually step up to make positive changes,” he said. JN

For more information, visit NAORRR.org.