I was raised to be a good rebbetzin, as was appropriate for someone coming from an Orthodox family. I didn’t marry a rabbi -- didn’t even come close. Insread, I was the 37th generation of my family to receive smicha (ordination), the first woman and first non-Orthodox -- but still very tradition-conscious -- member.
A number of years ago, I found out that my grandfather, z”l, had started the kashrut organization in Phoenix in the 1920s. He was invited to serve the synagogue here for High Holidays the same year before he continued on to Los Angeles. I have a copy of the Rosh Hashanah sermon he delivered at, what is now, the Arizona Jewish Historical Society building on Culver Street.
While my father’s family was extremely unsupportive of my path, my father, z”l, was. As a child, he would sit and teach me Torah, then Mishna, Pirke Avot, Shulchan Aruch and Gemara. He told me that I could do anything in life that I set my mind to, although I am fairly certain that this was not anything that he -- or I -- foresaw.
My father was years ahead of his time and his influence and support, as well as his determined challenges to me, have played a priceless and unquantifiable role in my rabbinate. He was incredibly proud of me (and of my sister, whose path was different from mine). His family did attend the celebration at a kosher restaurant in Los Angeles, although not the ordination ceremony itself.
Being that my only role models in the rabbinate at that time were male, it did take time and struggle to find my own authentic voice. While I enjoyed my career in education and did not tire of it, there was a powerful and undeniable internal pull that urged me on in this direction.
Cognitively, it made no sense; emotionally and spiritually, there was no other path. With three daughters and a husband at home, it was indeed a family decision. My daughters agreed as long as I continued to make my usual Shabbat dinners. I also had the support of my parents and in-laws, and, in a major shift, my daughters often sent me off with lunch that they packed for me.
Nothing about this was easy, nor is it easy today. Rabbinic families undergo such stress and pulls on time and energy; the emotional commitment, also, is huge. I doubt that most of our congregants realize the nature of the investment we make and the love and devotion my colleagues and I put into building Jewish life.
And now, my daughter is studying in rabbinical school. Maybe my family will have a 38th generation with a passion for Jewish education.
Rabbi Bonnie Sharfman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kehillah and president of Greater Phoenix Board of Rabbis.