Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

General reflections

I grew up in an era when there were NO women rabbis. I decided that I wanted to be a rabbi at the age of 11, in 1967. That would have been the year that Sally was entering rabbinical school. I was ordained in 1981, 40 years ago. Women rabbis were a novelty at that time. Our male colleagues were jealous at all the attention we received.  

I wondered when the time would come that women would simply be rabbis, and not “women rabbis.”  I wonder if we are there, yet?

Once I was reading a book to a group of preschool children and the protagonist was a female rabbi.  I was about to share with them how cool it was that there was a female rabbi, and I stopped myself. They had never known anything but a female rabbi. Why would I call to their attention that this was unique or remarkable?

Often students would come back from a family bar/bat mitzvah and express surprise that the rabbi was male!

Challenges and blessings

I believe that in most cases women are accepted equally with men. In the non-Orthodox world, it is normative for individuals of any gender to serve the Jewish people. When I came to Arizona in 1987, I was the first female rabbi in the state. I often heard, “I didn’t know that women could be rabbis.” I rarely hear that now. When the women rabbis in Phoenix meet now, there might be a dozen of us at the table!

At one time it was easier for women to be hired as an associate rabbi or as an education director.  It was newsworthy when Laura Geller became a senior rabbi and Linda Holtzman was hired by a Conservative congregation. Fifty years later, these events are no longer noteworthy.

Certainly for women, the blessings have been an appreciation of women’s life cycle moments.  Fifty years ago there were no communal baby naming ceremonies for the birth of girls, no ceremonies for menarche, menopause or miscarriage.  Rosh Chodesh celebrations were not regular events.

Women have crafted liturgy that men and women alike find meaningful, and women’s commentaries on Jewish texts have deeply enhanced our perspective on the tradition.

As women have entered the rabbinate, they have expanded their leadership roles in other communal areas.

Being a parent and a rabbi

The challenge was when I was raising children, if a male rabbi spent time with his children and family, it was considered to be a wonderful role model. If I spent time with my family, questions were raised as to whether women could be wives, mothers and rabbis. 

My children are grown, yet they will still tell you their memory of growing up. Whatever we did, “first we have to stop at the hospital.”  (To visit someone).  The challenge of sharing your parent with the community is not unique to women. Every rabbi’s child grows up knowing that at any moment, plans will change, and someone else’s needs will take precedence over theirs. Rabbinic work takes place on evenings and weekends, so families sacrifice much for their clergy parents.

Family support

My parents strongly discouraged me.  They knew the challenges of being a rabbi and hoped to spare me.

That said, I have had the honor of serving the Jewish people as a rabbi for 40+ years. It has been extraordinarily meaningful and I still find it incredibly rewarding. My parents ultimately came around and have great nachas in my work.  It has been a humble blessing.