Rabbi Susan Grossman’s mother worked as a secretary in the Social Security Administration during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Administration. As part of her mother’s duties, she attended meetings daily with employees that were mostly men. Inevitably, Grossman said, men would make inappropriate advances, but her mother was prepared. She carried a wooden ruler with her at all times.
“She would hit their groping hand (usually under a table) with the ruler and then apologize out loud to them, ‘So sorry, I thought I felt a fly,’” Grossman said. “She would tell other women in her office to do that too, so a lot of that story includes her training other women, and she taught me that as a young person, too.
“Because of that story I felt empowered in a way many women did not feel empowered,” she added. “I felt empowered because my mother successfully navigated the same situation though she was in a much more vulnerable position than I was in, in some ways. And because she was able to do it in a way that was within the boundaries of ‘accepted female behavior’ at the time.”
Grossman said her mother was a sharp and educated woman who could have gone much further had women been allowed to progress past the secretarial level at that time. Her story was a lesson that Grossman, now spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, absorbed, remembered and made use of when she eventually entered a rabbinical world dominated by men. In 1984, she was accepted into the first class of women at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Grossman didn’t carry a ruler with her to swat away offensive advances, but the lesson taught her how to navigate the difficult waters of being a woman in places where she often was not wanted, and how to parry and stop inappropriate behavior while continuing to function within a culture that then — and even now — has not completely accepted the ideas of women’s equality and authority.
In late October 1983, the JTS faculty voted 34-8 to admit women to study and be ordained as rabbis in the Conservative movement.
“The vote culminated years of controversy over whether Conservative Judaism could accept women as rabbis and is certain to set off additional controversy,” said an Oct. 25, 1983, New York Times article. “Though a majority of Conservative rabbis support the move, there has been considerable opposition from those who feel that ordination of women violates Jewish law.”
So it’s not surprising that Grossman, in her early working years as a rabbi, felt considerable pushback.
“There certainly was discrimination; there certainly was abuse in some ways. I was very lucky to not have sexual abuse,” Grossman said. “Although there was one layperson who put his hands inappropriately on me and many people made inappropriate comments about clothing: If I wore short skirts, we would get more people in services — those kinds of things.”
Grossman said that beyond physical and psychological harassment, there is another level of abuse, which is the disenfranchising and undercutting of women in authority. It’s a topic on which she has written extensively.
“They’re treated differently than a man would have been treated. Their authority is undermined in multiple ways,” Grossman said. “It takes a tremendous combination of awareness, of humor, of having a thick skin and being able to call things out in politically appropriate ways … to create alliances and build alliances and to be politically adroit, like you have to be in any organization.”
Because of that story I felt empowered in a way many women did not feel empowered. — Rabbi Susan Grossman
Grossman said that it is well- documented that people are still often uncomfortable with women in leadership positions.
“Studies show that women’s leadership does not transfer from congregation to congregation,” Grossman said. “So, a congregation that has a woman leader, and that leader leaves, and another woman comes in, doesn’t necessarily retain all the lessons it learned about how to treat women as women leaders. Rather the authority was accrued to that particular woman. And it starts all over again.”
Grossman is quick to point out, however, that progress has been made; she now heads a congregation with all-women leadership at Beth Shalom, alongside Cantor Rebecca Apt and congregation president Irva Nachlas-Gabin. She said she has seen a “sea change,” especially in the last five years, since she came to the congregation in 1997. Twenty-one years ago, there was a debate during the search process over whether to hire a woman rabbi, Beth Shalom’s first.
“I’m happy to report that right now, at Beth Shalom, where we have a woman rabbi, a woman cantor and a woman president, there hasn’t been that pushback. There hasn’t been anything dysfunctional. We have a very healthy congregation, praise God,” she said. “I’m very thrilled. I’m proud of my leadership, they really have been striving to build a community based on Jewish values.”
The congregation is ahead of the curve when dealing with the issues of sexual assault and harassment, brought so clearly to the fore with the #MeToo movement, she said. Years ago, congregation leadership and the personnel committee developed employee handbooks and a harassment policy that looked not only at professionals and teachers potentially harassing laypeople, but at the possibility of laypeople intimidating or harassing staff.
Grossman also sits on the Clergy Task Force for Jewish Women International, which deals with family violence. “So, that’s been another piece of my contribution, not just at Beth Shalom, but in the larger Jewish community.”
She said keeping in mind how gender power can be abused and used against women helps congregational leadership have a better handle on how to respond appropriately.
Cantor Rebecca Apt joined Beth Shalom earlier this year. Invested as a hazzan in 2013, her graduation from JTS’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School came almost a quarter century after Grossman’s ordination in 1989. She had many female colleagues in cantorial school, and during her third year, a female program director. And yet Apt, now 30, still felt the sting of being treated differently.
“It hasn’t been quite as overt as many of my colleagues, but I have experienced it — from people commenting that my clothes are too tight in the past … or a colleague saying that my career was going to be shorter because women’s voices don’t last as long as men, because of a ‘special technique.’ I had no idea what he was talking about.”
Apt laughs when recounting that story, as it sounded ridiculous to her. Nonetheless, she let her colleague know he was wrong.
“I flat out, I yelled at him and I said, ‘You better stop that right now.’ Because he was a classmate, he was one of my friends, I could kind of joke around with him.”
She agrees with Grossman that she has felt no discrimination from the congregation at Beth Shalom, but has had to deal with it elsewhere.
“Things like male congregants trying to kiss me on the cheek and I just wanted a handshake. But after they did that, they got the message after a while, when I was backing away and presenting my hand,” she said.
At Beth Shalom, Apt says her work life is easier now, working with Grossman.
“I really don’t think about it,” Apt said. “What I really care about is that the rabbi is good at their job and that they’re supportive of cantors and that they want to work well as a team — which she does. So, if you can get that, then it really doesn’t matter for me whether it’s male or female. So, it’s not something that I think about all the time, which is good. And that’s the way it should be. It shouldn’t be, ‘Oh a woman rabbi.’ It should just be a rabbi.”
Apt said she is passionate about and supports the #MeToo movement.
“I’m in a profession which has really been dominated by men,” she said. “So, even before all these allegations came out, that was something that I felt very passionate about. Just making sure that women feel heard.”