Three Rabbinical Students, One Opinion: Disassembling the “Manel” and Building Representative Jewish Communities

By Talia Kaplan, Lilli Shvartsmann, and Emily Volz 

For many, the image associated with the word “rabbi” is a white man with a beard. This is understandable – it’s easy to associate roles with the people you’re used to filling them. Two of us – Lilli and Talia – did not consider becoming rabbis until we were adults, in large part because we did not see many female rabbis growing up. Emily was surrounded by female rabbis, yet the lack of queer and disabled representation still limited the way she and others perceived her and her potential for leadership. A common thread in all of our stories is that the image we associated with rabbis did not include us. 

As our first year of rabbinical school at JTS draws to a close, we continue to receive subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that, despite the diversity of backgrounds among students at our school, many members of egalitarian Jewish communities still have a picture of clergy that does not include us. This is not only disempowering and hurtful to us, it also narrows the Torah from which our communities draw. 

One way we see this is through a phenomenon called the “manel” – an all-male panel. Homogenous, all male conversations are not just found in the “manel,” but also in other events and publications. For instance, a prominent Conservative synagogue had a panel on COVID-19 and the future of the American synagogue that only included six white men. In an email, the Rabbinical Assembly lifted up five members’ written responses to the murder of George Floyd, and all of the rabbis featured were white men. Just a few months prior, the USCJ published a feature about rabbis in the field that only highlighted men. Though we have seen this happen within our own communities, we know that this problem is not unique to the Conservative Movement. Manels are problematic not because of whose voices they amplify, but rather because of the voices they leave out. As emerging leaders, we invite others to join us in raising up voices that reflect the diversity of our communities. 

Manels are but one contributing factor in a vast tradition and culture that primarily canonizes male voices, leading to a religious system that is shaped by male needs and experiences. The centering of homogenous voices both emerges from and exacerbates a deeper problem that must be addressed: assumptions about by whom and for whom Jewish spaces exist. This has implications for how inclusive and just our communities are, from who we think to hire for jobs today to whose voices will be remembered tomorrow; not highlighting diverse voices now means that in the future, scholars and individuals will have far less to work with in understanding the lives of female, non-white, queer, and/or disabled Jews of our generation. In short, the people speaking for our communities should accurately reflect the multifaceted nature of those communities. When we engage with the voices of women, queer Jews, Jews of Color, disabled Jews, and other historically marginalized groups, we encounter the fullness of Torah. In so many of our synagogues, we see the phrase “Da Lifne Mi Atah Omed,” “know before whom you stand.” We need to make a point of engaging with and respecting all voices in order to truly know by whom we are surrounded. 

Though predominantly white manels have long existed, COVID-19 seems to have led to their proliferation. Coping with the real discrepancies of the pandemic – such as grief support in disproportionately impacted communities, childcare, and loss of income – leaves those with social privilege more time to be on panels that historically marginalized individuals might not. Additionally, online forums make events (conferences, panels, discussions) increasingly visible, so we’re hyper-aware of work across the Jewish world. Zoom and other online platforms present us with the opportunity to look beyond our immediate geographical communities when reaching out to speakers. Regardless of why there seem to have been so many manels recently, we must do better. Especially when we hold panels and conversations that envision a Jewish communal response to the pandemic, it is imperative to include the voices of Jews impacted at all racial and socioeconomic levels. 

To expand the conversation, we all need to both be in deep relationship across lines of difference and also reflect on our own experiences. While the three of us hold personal identities along the lines of queerness, disability, chronic illness, and geography that inform our work in Jewish communities, we cannot personally speak to what it’s like to be marginalized when it comes to race, class, or stage of life and therefore do not represent the full breadth of Jews panels must include. This is where relationships become so important. We must start by recognizing who exists throughout our communities, whose stories have not yet been heard, and with whom we should build relationships – not just in times of crisis, but on an ongoing basis. Panels should not just check a “diversity” box; rather, they should emerge out of larger systemic and institutional change. We must all contribute to this culture shift so that one day, people of all backgrounds will see themselves as equal stakeholders in Jewish community and leadership. In the spirit of self-reflection and expanding the conversation, we would like to leave you with a few suggestions and related writings from our colleagues:  

Talia Kaplan is an organizer and educator studying for rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Passionate about building spiritually rooted communities capable of effecting social change, she has served as Program Director of JustCity, advocated for immigration justice with the RAC, interned for T’ruah, and published poetry and prose on contemporary Jewish life. 

Lilli Shvartsmann is an activist, educator, and student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is eager to create loving Jewish community and currently serves as the rabbinic fellow at Binghamton University Hillel, and previously served as a staff member on USY on Wheels and educator at Ramah Nyack.

Emily Volz is an activist, writer, and current rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Drawing on her queer and disabled identities, she fights to create just and inclusive Jewish communities that celebrate individuals from historically marginalized backgrounds; she is currently an editor and writer for NeuroClastic and a contributing blogger for the Times of Israel.