Headcovering Confusion at Ramah Darom

by Rabbi Elyssa Joy Auster

When we were standing in archery class, I asked the fourteen year old girls why they don’t wear kippot. During morning prayers, or other religious events,  and in the mess hall, all boys are required to wear kippot at Ramah Darom, the Conservative movement’s southern camp campus. After all, I have never met a female Conservative rabbi who doesn’t wear one during religious events.

Though the girls were waxing philosophic in talking about the Universe and whether or not we are really “here”, when it came to the discussion on kippot, I was met with simplicity and ignorance. “It’s a boy thing,” or “The tradition is for boys to wear them,” were the responses I received. So I challenged them back: “but what is the reason for wearing a kippah?” They hadn’t been engaged in the real question at hand: if the reason is to recognize God’s presence and glory all around us, then why is this practice reserved for boys?

It is no surprise to me then, that women are not fully accepted as religious leaders in the Conservative movement. And when the women are given these roles, there is often an expectation that they are men with female gentalia. I am blessed as a graduate of Hebrew College, a transdenominational institution. When I was ordained in 2011, there were numerous articles written on the struggles my female colleagues from JTS were having in securing pulpits and positions in the movement. I have to wonder what, if anything, Conservative Judaism is doing to recognize and develop women rabbis as particularly female religious leaders. On the level of lay leadership, clearly not enough.

I was particularly saddened by the fact that these fourteen year old girls were not equipped with the knowledge to engage in this very real and important discussion for the Conservative movement to move forward. When camp is shown to be one of the main Jewish experiences that make Jewish identity stick for the long haul, I am concerned with the message these girls are getting.

The discussion of females wearing kippot to female rabbis is not a huge leap. It boils down to this question: are women taken seriously as spiritual and religious beings. If the kippah is one of the most recognized symbols of the Jewish experience and we are excluding women from it, then our message is clear.

The fourteen year olds may not get that leap. They might even prefer being left out of this tradition, but here is what these girls are hearing: what you do as girls matters less. As the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue, I had thought the Conservative movement had progressed past this. After all, it isn’t the fault of the fourteen year olds, but rather the leaders who are suppressing the religious development of one half our population.

Rabbi Elyssa Joy Auster serves Temple Judea, a Conservative Movement affiliated synagogue in Fort Myers, Florida.