By Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt
This is a #MetToo story. But it is not a story about sexual harassment or assault. It is a story about power – of getting caught under the weight of leadership models that have not changed for centuries.
The stories pouring out these past few months of assault and harassment in the workplace have been horrific and jarring – and necessary. Sexual assault, harassment are but the crudest reactions to the rise of women into leadership in our workplaces and Nation. We must find our way to a world in which these stories do not repeat themselves.
However, if that is all we accomplish, an opportunity will have been lost. For what these stories reveal is not merely that certain men misbehave in ways boorish and archaic. Rather, these stories lay bare a much deeper fracture – a structural problem in which power seems to only beget more power, thus perpetuating the conditions for an endless status quo.
When we dig to the core, we quickly realize that these structures were built by men. Men have always led. So they have set up the world to work for them. But that world doesn’t work for many women – and in particular for women who wish to lead but to do so with commitment to a set of different values. In other words, our systems of power are the very means by which women are prevented from advancing.
So what might #MeToo have to do with being asked to serve as co-senior Rabbi of one of America’s largest and oldest synagogues?
Power is often saved for one. One leader, one voice, one way. But shared power is like light, if it is shared, it does not diminish, it extends further.
I first entered the pulpit 12 years ago. The pulpit – a traditionally male-dominated profession. I could not imagine then how I could become the mother I wanted to be and rise to the height of my profession. In the years since I have certainly experienced my share of #MeToo moments. And in addition to these moments, the biggest obstacle I feared, and have faced, was that no normative model existed for how I could rise as a leader while also raising a family as a present mom.
For many years I believed it was impossible to have the career I longed for while being present at home – so I built a part-time rabbinate with the help of my boss and the board of my synagogue.
When the opportunity to apply for a senior Rabbi position arose, I wondered aloud to my (male) co-associate Rabbi: is there was ever a way to do this job differently? What might partnership look like at the top? How might we be able to serve together, modeling hevruta (learning in partnership) and shared power – offering the synagogue the gifts of two people – while maintaining some balance in our lives, a rare gift in our profession.
I will admit that this could not have worked with anyone, but it works with my co-senior Rabbi not only because we are uniquely aligned, but also because I now realize – and actualize – that there are alternative models of leadership available. Models that would allow women to advance in a world that seeks to bring their gifts and their values to organizations, equally.
In order to do this, it has meant that my male work partner had to shift, to actively make space for something new. It means taking turns being the lead and making space for the voice of the other to be amplified, constantly playing the role of supporter. It means stepping back more than what might feel natural. It means staying quiet sometimes when we would otherwise be loud It means risking our own power for the sake of another’s potential power.
In the Torah, Parshat Behalotecha Moses tells God that he cannot bear responsibility for the Jewish people all by himself. God responds with an expansive view of leadership by saying: “Assemble 70 of Israel’s elders… I will cause some of the spirit that you possess to emanate, and I will place it upon them. You will then not have to bear the responsibility alone.” Numbers 11:11-17
In a beautiful Midrash in Sifrei we learn: “What did Moses resemble at that time? He resembled a candle placed on a candelabrum, from which many additional candles were lit – which did not diminish its own light at all. So too, Moses’ wisdom was not diminished at all [by the emanation of his spirit.]”
As we explore new pathways to advance dignity in the workplace and remove the obstacles that prevent women from leading, my hope is that we will be open enough to also consider how the architecture of organizations has slowed a pluralism within leadership positions. That we will see this moment as a pathway to expanding our old modes of leadership and making space for more lights to shine.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt is Co-Senior Rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. She has been recognized by The Forward as one of the 32 most inspiring rabbis in the country.