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July 17, 1992 - Image 30

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1992-07-17

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

WHAT S THE BIG DEAL?

'

DAVID KOTZEN-REICH

Staff Writer

0

n July 1, the newly or-
dained junior rabbi of
Temple Emanu-El qui-
etly settled in and began a
new career — an event that
normally takes little notice
outside the sphere of the con-
gregation.
The rabbi, however, hap-
pens to be a woman. Because
female rabbis have never be-
fore led a Detroit congrega-
tion, the return of Rabbi Amy
Bigman to her hometown
prompted a story not only in
The Jewish News, but a five-
column article in the Detroit

News.
"Kids nowadays growing
up do not know that this is
a big deal," said Rabbi Big-
man, who has grown tired of
the subject of female rabbis.
"They see women rabbis,
women doctors, women
lawyers. What's the big deal?
If you showed this article to
a 10-year-old in other cities
where they come into contact
with a female rabbi all the
time, they'd say, 'What's the
big deal?' "
The first woman rabbi was
ordained 20 years ago, and
many other cities, especial-
ly on the East and West
coasts, have had female rab-
bis ever since. Several rabbis
here said Detroit has been
ready to receive female rab-
bis for many years.
But like other cities in the
Midwest — such as Chicago,
which had only one female
rabbi until several years ago
— Detroit has not been a
place where 10-year-olds
could grow up with rabbis
who were not men.
As a female cantor, how-
ever, Gail Hirschenfang has
had a significant impact on
women and girls at Temple
Beth El, said Rabbi Daniel
Polish. Cantor Hirschenfang,
Detroit's first female cantor,
is starting her third year at
Beth El.

30

FRIDAY, JULY 17, 1992

"We've found lots of women
responding warmly to her,"
said Rabbi Polish. "She's also
been effective in many other
ways. She can address
women's issues more direct-
ly than either I or (assistant)
Rabbi Cook can. She brings a
different perspective to the
decision-making that goes on
here."
Rabbi Ellen Weinberg
Dreyfus was technically De-
troit's first female rabbi when
she worked part-time in 1982
at Temple Emanu-El. She
left in 1983 to become Chica-
go's first female rabbi.
Rabbi Weinberg Dreyfus
said she doesn't think Detroit
dragged its feet regarding the
hiring of a female rabbi. "I've
heard that female rabbis
were chosen but declined job
offers in Detroit," she said.
Rabbi Gila Ruskin, a De-
troit native now working in
Baltimore, Md., keeps tabs
on the Detroit Jewish com-
munity by way of her par-
ents, who still live here. She
said that while Detroit's Jew-
ish community was compar-
atively slow to hire a female
rabbi, trends that begin on
the coasts often take time to
reach the Midwest.
Detroit has for some time
been doing "exciting and cre-
ative things" and was ready
for a female rabbi, Rabbi
Ruskin said. Amy Bigman
should not face much resis-
tance because she is female.
"There are people who are re-
sistant. But as soon as they
see it happen the first time,
they accept it."
Rabbi Bigman, who grew
up in West Bloomfield, was a
member of Temple Beth El,
and during rabbinic school in-
terned at Temple Emanu-El.
The seeds of her vision to be-
come a rabbi germinated
while she was in high school,
when she decided she want-
ed to work actively in the
Jewish community.
As an rabbinic intern in
Clarksdale, Miss.; in McGe-
hee, Ark.; and Lima, Ohio;

Rabbi Bigman encountered
the kinds of reactions that
make her job more difficult.
"I got comments like, 'Oh, the
cute little rebbetzin.' The reb-
betzin is the rabbi's wife. I'm
a rabbi."
Being a female rabbi can
also trigger uncomfortable
situations. "Men come up to
you and say, 'I've never
kissed a rabbi before.' In a re-
ceiving line, the man doesn't
kiss the male rabbi. Some
men think that just because
I'm a woman, it's the proper
thing."
Rabbi Bigman wants to get

off the issue of a rabbi's gen-
der and prove her worth by
her performance. "When we
call attention to the differ-
ence, which is only a biolog-
ical difference, the more
problems we have."
She refuses to stand before
groups and speak about be-
ing a female rabbi. "Because
first of all, I don't know what
it's like being a male rabbi,
so how can I tell you what it's
like to be a woman rabbi? I
can tell you what it's like to
be me."
So far, with one exception,
the reaction to her return has

Amy Bigman: She's not the rebbetzin.

not been any different than
what it would be if she were
a male, Rabbi Bigman said.
After her first Friday night
service as a rabbi on July 3,
an older female member of
the congregation approached
her. "Oh, I want to meet the
rebbetzin," she said.
Before the woman could in-
troduce herself, Thelma
Rosenbaum, Rabbi Emeritus
Milton Rosenbaum's wife, in-
terrupted: "I'm the rebbetzin.
She's the rabbi."
"It spared me from having
to make the correction," Rab-
bi Bigman said. ❑

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