I rushed home from work early last Tuesday afternoon. The roll call was taking place at the Democratic National Convention and I wanted to sit on the couch with my children by my side to witness history.
We cuddled up as I struggled to find CSPAN on the television to watch as the first woman ever was selected as a major party’s political nominee. I found the roll call to be fascinating, as with each state, we inched closer to this historic moment. After a few moments, my son got off the couch and began playing with his toys. I held my daughter close though, wanting her to watch this moment. But truthfully, she soon started asking how long this “show” would be.
She didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. She didn’t realize the pain and suffering that women went through for the right to vote, that women continue to go through just for equal rights under the law. She didn’t realize the struggles that those who came before her went through so that she can grow up to believe that she can be anyone and do anything.
“Of course a woman can be president if she wants,” my young daughter said. And yet, in the 240-year history of the miracle that is this country, this is the first time that a woman is a major party’s nominee. I didn’t expect to be so emotional when I was watching that roll call, or when I watched Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech on Thursday night. And I was not emotional because of the content of the speech or the candidate herself. I was emotional because of the moment. For it was truly a shehechiyanu moment.
I am proud to serve as rabbi of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey, which is open and inclusive, and deeply committed to egalitarianism. As a sacred community, we believe in giving women and men, boys and girls, equal opportunity ritually and religiously. When a woman is able to compete for the highest office in the land, it allows us to fully embrace that sense of egalitarianism, and opens up possibilities for young girls and boys. It allows us to equally celebrate women called to the Torah and women called to public service. I appreciate and know that the opportunities for my daughter and my son are endless.
I was recently teaching about the biblical narrative of the daughters of Zelophehad. The story tells of Zelophehad’s five daughters—Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—standing up to Moses, the priests, and the chieftains, demanding that their father’s inheritance be passed down to them. I explained about how remarkable this egalitarian act was in the Torah and used it as an example of gender equality.
And then, a young bat mitzvah student turned to me and asked about the “Women of the Wall,” and the fight for gender equality at the kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem. She didn’t understand how it was possible that there was this egalitarian act in the Torah and there was still the fight for gender equality in the Jewish community today.
She was right. I was celebrating this biblical act of egalitarianism and yet, the first bat mitzvah in America didn’t take place until 1922. It wasn’t until 1935 that Regina Jonas was privately ordained in Germany as the first female rabbi in the world and 1972 that Sally Preisand became the first female rabbi in America.
Celebrating the egalitarianism of the daughters of Zelophehad is like celebrating that the 19th amendment as the culmination of gender equality. Rather, it is a reminder that we cannot simply rest on our laurels and expect equality. We cannot be content with one symbolic moment in time. After all, even as we celebrate the historic nomination of Hillary Clinton, we are still fighting for equal pay and paid medical leave.
The truth is, when sitting on the couch teary-eyed watching the roll call take place, I thought about more than just how historic this moment was. I thought, “It’s about time.” This moment was long overdue. But a moment of celebration does not mean that the fight for gender equality is over. Rather, these moments inspire us to continue to work harder to make sure that the sacred nature of each individual is celebrated.
I teach about the daughters of Zelophehad differently than I used to, thanks to the insight of that bat mitzvah student. It is not a symbol of biblical egalitarianism. Rather, it is a call to action that inspires me to continue to act for egalitarianism in the Jewish community and beyond. So, too, may we celebrate this historic first and refuse to settle for it to become a “historic only.” May we be committed to the idea that we are all made in God’s image and to continue to work towards gender equality in the Jewish community, and in society as a whole.
During Hillary Clinton’s speech last Thursday night upon accepting her party’s nomination, she said: “Where there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.” I hope and pray that opportunities are limitless for my daughter and my son—and for all of our children. And I will continue to fight until that is so.